Opinion: Saving School Transport

County councils all over England are making deep cuts to school transport that Liberal Democrats are right to fight against. School transport cuts are bad for child safety, bad for working parents and bad for congestion on local roads.

The cuts, which mostly have come into effect this term or will over the next 12 months are, in most cases, to reduce school transport to the very least permitted by statute. That means it is being axed for everyone who is not on free school meals or who lives more than 3 miles (2 for primary children) from their nearest school.

Bad for child safety

Thousands of pupils and families are affected by these cuts and the problems caused are extensive. Putting aside the argument as to whether a six-mile daily walk is reasonable for an 11 year-old, councils are requiring children to walk on roads many of which are unsafe and unsuitable: roads with no pavements or step-offs with heavy 60 mph traffic. Already an average of 47 child pedestrians are killed or seriously injured every week on our roads, a figure that will surely rise following these cuts.

Bad for the environment & economy

It is bad for the economy. The cost of several dozen extra car journeys is greater than the cost of a school bus journey. Greater congestion is bad for local business. Many parents (particularly mothers) will have to give up work. If you have to walk your children three miles to school in the morning and back home again it will be 10 am before you can head off to work. You will need to leave work perhaps by 2 pm to walk to school to collect the children. There are few jobs, and almost no skilled jobs, that you will be able to do. The loss of income tax and economic benefit of having adults in work will surely outweigh what councils will claim to save by these cuts.

Rural and semi-rural communities will feel these cuts the worst. It will be a great shame if villages and small country towns, which in so many ways offer great places to grow up, become more difficult to live in for working families.

Bad for the poorest children

These cuts also mean that children on free school meals may be readily identifiable (they will get transport while their school mates do not). This will undermine efforts by many schools to shield FSM pupils from being identified and stigmatised.

“Choice” of school is being made a mockery by these cuts. Many children choose to attend a school other than their absolute nearest for perfectly good educational or personal reasons. Indeed, previous Tory, Labour governments and now the Coalition have encouraged choice.

In Kent, for example, the county council is abolishing free school transport for pupils of grammar schools and church schools. The existence of such schools is controversial but most of us will agree that if we have such schools then access should not depend on your economic or other personal circumstances.

There is generally no provision being made to continue school transport for pupils who have started at a school with, we would say, a legitimate expectation that they would receive school transport throughout their time at that school. It is outrageous that some pupils, in the middle of the school education, some of them halfway through GCSE courses are being forced to change school because of transport cuts. We are specifically aware of bright sixth-formers leaving school because the transport they depended on is being taken away.

Opposing these cuts…

No county council should be allowed to say school transport cuts are forced on them by the national fiscal position. In most cases the transport being removed has been in place for decades. We are often reminded that the Coalition is cutting spending back as a share of GDP only to 2006 levels. School buses that were affordable in the ’70s or ’80s should certainly be affordable in 2011/12 or in a hypothetical comparison to 2006.

Cuts are a question of priorities. There can hardly be a county council that is so perfectly configured in every other respect that there is nothing else that can be cut instead of school transport. In any case, these are not real “savings” because the financial cost of several dozen car journeys will exceed the cost of a shared school bus. It is a transfer of cost from the council to working families and an increase in cost.

We believe that choosing to cut school transport is an ideological choice by Conservative councillors. We know that some Tory councillors are lobbying for councils to have no responsibility for school transport whatsoever. One East Sussex Tory county councillor said to one of the authors of this article, “people shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to get them to school.”

Conservatives often talk of “rolling back the state” to the most minimal level. This is a difference between Liberals and Conservatives. We too don’t support state activity for its own sake. There are some areas where the state is too intrusive. But unlike Conservatives we know that the state, not least our local authorities, can be the place where people come together for the common good. Where the disadvantages faced by some citizens can be reduced or even eliminated. Where action can be taken that benefits every person in the community because there is plenty we can do collectively that we cannot do individually.

It is in the interests of every individual in the community that there is a good school transport system. It does no-one good for local roads to be congested by 50 cars instead of a school bus. It does no-one good for some mothers to have to give up work because walking children 3 miles to and from school twice a day means they can’t get a job locally. It will do no-one if a child is hurt walking to or from school. It does no-one good for bright sixth-formers to drop out because they physically cannot get to school. It does no-one good for some villages to become effectively unliveable areas for working families.

… And how you can help the campaign

So far, the campaign has gone well. An open letter signed by teaching unions and campaign groups from all over England has gone to Michael Gove and Annette Brooke tabled EDM 2283. The Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour gave supportive coverage. This led to a meeting with Education Minister Tim Lougton who was initially brusque and dismissive but by the end was promising to take action.

We have testimonies from parents, teachers and councillors all over the country detailing just how devastating these cuts have been to them and letters of support from MPs of all three parties (even a couple of evidently moderate Tories). Transport Minister Norman Baker has given us considerable support and it is unfortunate that national responsibility on this matter rests not with him but with the Education Department. The shadow Secretary of State for Education has our evidence and has said he will look into the issue.

We need to keep up the pressure. Please go to our Facebook page. Ask your MP to sign EDM 2283. Find out what your local education authority is doing. Campaign on this issue in your community.

If Conservatives are intent on rolling back school transport then there is every reason for the public to roll back the Conservatives at the county council elections in 2013.

* Sarah Osbourne is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lewes. Antony Hook is Vice-Chair of South East Region Liberal Democrats and is a School Govenor.

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  • I am sorry I don’t think school transport budgets are uncuttable. Just to take one example, my Tory run authority is axeing the right that Roman Catholic children have to free transport if they attend a Roman Catholic school and quite right. There is one academy jointly funded by the RCs and C of E. Why when three children live next door to each other should the RC have funded transport and the others from the C of E an no religion not! It should bebased on need and not religion

  • Old Codger Chris 12th Nov '11 - 12:47am

    An idealogical objection to ring-fencing money – in the name of Localism – is causing harm to many local services. Did you hear Lynne Featherstone lamenting on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour that she couldn’t prevent Essex County Council cutting grants to womens and childrens refuges? Another area where Tory cuts may cost lives.

  • David Rogers 12th Nov '11 - 12:01pm

    “Old Codger”, I have an ideological objection to ring-fencing money, and am proud ot it! Our communities are diverse, and decisions about local priorities should reflect that. Why would MPs of any party, or straightjackets from any part of central Government, have a better understanding of the needs of our towns and villages? The issue here is that East Sussex (and presumably Kent) Tories have different priorities from those that we espouse.
    My only point of difference with the authors of this article is that I do not support a subsidy for families who choose church schools for their offspring.

  • sarah osborne 12th Nov '11 - 2:39pm

    In principle I agree with you re faith schools, however pupils who have started their education at a particular school on the basis that there would be free school transport have a legitimate expectation that it would not be taken away midway through their time at the school.Also having spoken to a lot of parents during my campaign I learnt that many had sent their children to a faith school for reasons other than religion, such as the special needs facilities available there.If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper I would agree with you not to subsidise on the basis of faith but the reality is more complicated.Consequently children’s qualification for transport (if it’s not safe to walk) should be based on the relevant distance to the school they actually attend within the local area even if that does not happen to be their absolute nearest school, if there is a ‘good’ reason, such as changing school due to bullying or to access special needs support, or to access co-ed education.

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