Thousands more children will no longer receive free transport to school unless the government recognises the higher costs of services in rural areas, the County Councils Network has warned.
CCN said government figures show counties pay an average of £93 per child to provide free buses, taxis and other modes of transport, while councils in cities and towns pay £10. The higher costs in rural areas are caused by larger numbers of pupils being eligible for free school transport than in urban areas and the longer distances travelled, CCN said.
County leaders now say they will be forced to further reduce services unless this disparity is recognised by the government and addressed through adequate funding.
Oxfordshire CC leader and CCN spokesman for education and children’s services Ian Hudspeth (Con) said county councils are currently paying a “rural premium” when paying for school transport which is making it increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies.
So far 29 of 36 county councils have reduced expenditure on school transport between 2014-17 by introducing charges, reducing transport and tightening eligibility. CCN said data from 20 counties shows this had led to 22,352 fewer pupils being provided with free transport to school over the period.
The data also shows large regional variations in the cost of free school transport, with a cost per head in North Yorkshire of £207, compared to nearby Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30) and Wakefield (£23), CCN said.
The network said the high costs of school travel, exacerbated by “dramatic reductions in rural bus routes” and housing growth, are contributing to “creating unsustainable funding situations for counties”.
This, CCN said, is particularly pressing in adult social care and children’s services and leading to further cuts to library services, transport and spending on economic growth.
The fact the latest consultation on the fair funding review said rurality will form a big part of a new funding formula from 2020 has been welcomed, however.
Cllr Hudspeth said: “We very much support the direction of travel laid out by government, but the rhetoric must be backed up with real, tangible change to the way councils are funded, with the recognition of the increased costs of delivering services in rural settings.
“We will continue to work with ministers to ensure that the new formula funds councils in based on what they genuinely need to provide vital local services such as school transport.”