Children’s services directors have urged an end to the duty on councils to pay for buses for pupils who live beyond walking distance of their school.
A survey by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services drew responses from 112 English councils, who together paid £737.1m a year for school transport, 36% of it for children who lived beyond walking distance but without special needs.
The association thinks this shows top tier councils in all spend more than £1bn on the service and has urged the Department for Education (DfE) to review the duty, in place since 1944.
Ian Thomas, chair of ADCS’ resources and sustainability policy committee, said the survey report showed spending was “unsustainable given the current financial climate and the growing numbers of pupils overall”.
Fading local authority control over the location of free schools and of term dates added more pressure to budgets, particularly in rural areas, he said.
“ADCS believes it is now time to review local authority duties in relation to home to school transport and that consideration should be given to devolving this duty to schools themselves as we move towards an increasingly school-led system,” Mr Thomas said.
“The review must consider the current universal offer to all those meeting the distance criteria to ensure limited resources are used on learners who would otherwise not be able to travel to school.”
ADCS said responsibility for students with special needs should remain with local authorities so their transport was considered alongside other welfare needs.
The survey found councils faced difficulty in securing cheaper prices from bus operators due to “the lack of capacity in the transport market [which] is driving up costs”.
A spokesman for bus trade body the Confederation of Passenger Transport said it lacked data but “we have no reason to believe that there is a lack of capacity”.
Sian Thornthwaite, who runs the School Transport consultancy, said the duty, “works well, is relatively cheap to administer, take up by entitled pupils is high, [it] does not stigmatise and costs for transport per pupil are relatively low as large flows of pupils are catered for”.
Ms Thornthwaite felt the transport market remained competitive in many areas, at least for smaller vehicles.
“Reluctance to bid by operators may reflect local authorities’ practices such as driving down price through e-auctions, onerous and complex procurement processes, frameworks that lock out bidders for years, and use of lowest cost rather than most economically advantageous bid”, she said.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We will consider the findings of the report and will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that school transport meets the needs of pupils, parents and schools.”