School Travel - Transport Committee Contents


Current Framework

19. Whilst the ability to travel easily is important to the development of young people for a whole host of reasons, none is more vital than the ability to travel to school, college or other institutions of learning. The legislative framework for the provision for school transport dates back to the Education Act 1944. This Act set the statutory distance over which free travel to school must be provided. The distances set were two miles each way for children of eight years old or younger and three miles for children over the age of eight years. These distances are often known as the statutory walking distances because they are measured along the shortest route which a child could walk with reasonable safety. Under the Education Act 1996 Local Authorities have a duty to provide free transport for all children of compulsory school age who are attending their nearest school when this is over the statutory walking distance. There are also discretionary powers for Local Authorities to extend the provision of free transport and provide transport for which there is a charge. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 extended the provision to free school transport for some primary and secondary school pupils.

20. Sian Thornthwaite, a consultant specialising in school travel, told us that the journey to school was important not only because of potential health and environmental benefits. Research had shown that:[16]

    affordable and available transport, whether it be bus or options for walking and cycling, has a key impact in terms of reducing exclusion and ensuring that young people are able to continue in education.

21. Throughout our inquiry, we heard from witnesses who claimed that the current statutory distances, set in the 1940s, should be reconsidered. Although the distances are not set out in legislation as distances under which it is possible for children to walk, the distances are measured along the shortest safe walking route. There was widespread agreement from our witnesses that the current two and three mile distances are no longer realistic walking distances and merely "an arbitrary limit which differentiates as to whether the financial burden falls on the parent or the local authority."[17] Sheena Pickersgill, Metro, also argued that the area through which children had to walk could make a difference to what was an 'acceptable distance', saying: "If they live next door to a busy road or a motorway I would think even a mile is too far sometimes."[18] However, the Minister told us that "there are no plans to review those walking distances."[19]

22. The Education and Inspection Act 2006 moved away from the idea home to school distance should be the prime consideration for deciding which children were entitled to free school travel. Instead, the Act placed a duty on a local authority to provide free school transport for anyone who qualified as an 'eligible child'. Eligible children are pupils aged 5-16 who:

  • attend schools beyond the statutory walking distance where the local authority has not made arrangements for boarding accommodation or attendance at a nearer school;
  • attend schools within the statutory walking distance but who have special educational needs or mobility problems which mean that they cannot reasonably be expected to walk;
  • cannot be expected to walk to their nearest suitable school because of the nature of the route;
  • are from low income families as defined in Schedule 8 of the Act (i.e. those children who are entitled to free school meals and those whose parents are in receipt of the maximum level of Working Tax Credit).

23. For children from low income families the provisions under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 require free transport to be provided in circumstances where free transport would not otherwise be provided. For secondary school pupils in this category it means free school transport must be provided not only for those attending their nearest school but to any one of the three nearest secondary schools where those schools are between two and six miles. Where a school is chosen on the grounds of religion or belief the upper limit is extended to 15 miles. For primary school pupils it means that free transport must also be provided to children from low income families if their school is over two miles away, even if they are over eight and therefore the three mile statutory distance would otherwise apply.

24. The Department for Transport and the Department for Children, Schools and Families claim that the most important benefit of the extended entitlement

    will come from removing transport as a barrier to parents from low income backgrounds being able to express a preference for a school that best meets the needs, aspirations, and talents of their children. In turn, this should contribute to a reduction in social exclusion".[20]

However, the Yellow School Bus Commission argued that there is a "basic inequity [in] dividing the school population into those given free transport and those paying the local bus (or train) fare".[21]

25. The statutory distances have not been updated since they were introduced in 1944. The majority of our witnesses were critical of the distances as they stand, and argued that it is no longer reasonable to expect children to walk three miles (around a one hour walk at a steady pace across level ground) to school. We agree. At present, the distances are arbitrary limits below which the Local Authority does not have to provide free transport rather than a realistic assessment of the distance at which it ceases to be appropriate to expect children to walk to school. We recommend the Government review the distances that children are expected to walk or pay for their own transport—often referred to as 'statutory walking distances'.

26. The Education and Inspections Act requires Local Authorities to provide free school transport for pupils who cannot reasonably be expected to walk because of the nature of the route. Local circumstances and infrastructure can affect profoundly the likelihood of parents allowing their children to walk to school. We therefore recommend that the Government consider, as part of a wider review of the statutory walking distances, if national limits are appropriate, or whether the decision to provide free transport to and from school should be left entirely to the discretion of local authorities.


27. The extended entitlement to free transport for children from low income families relies on two methods of defining low income families. One is children in receipt of free school meals and the other is children from families in receipt of the maximum level of working tax credit. Sian Thornthwaite, a consultant specialising in school travel, noted that there were problems with the way entitlement to free school meals was assessed and using this "as a gateway to an additional benefit of free transport" could mean that some of those who the extended school transport entitlement was meant to help were further disadvantaged.[22] The other way of identifying children from low income families entitled to free transport under the Act was those from a household in receipt of the maximum amount of working tax credit. However, it was not possible for education authorities to access HMRC records and ensure that those children who were eligible were aware of the entitlement.[23]

28. Ms Thornthwaite was also sceptical about the extended entitlement having the desired effect, arguing that for distances of 2-6 miles there are often choices in urban or suburban areas but this is usually not the case in rural areas. In order to offer a real choice in rural areas the upper distance for extended free school transport, currently six miles, or in cases where the choice is due to religion or belief fifteen miles, would have to be increased.

29. Evidence from David Brown, South Yorkshire Strategic Education Transport Group supported the view that it is difficult for Local Authorities to identify children entitled to free transport under the new arrangements. He told us that in South Yorkshire the local authority had been able to access the national database of children in receipt of free school meals and advise those families of the extended transport entitlements but had been unable to do so for families in receipt of working tax credits.[24]

30. It is possible that confusion about entitlement and the difficulties Local Authorities face in identifying eligible children and informing parents of the entitlement have led to a lower take-up of free transport than may otherwise have been the case. In written evidence the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Transport estimated that "around 30% of newly entitled pupils will take advantage of the new offer".[25] However, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools and Learners told that Committee, in November 2008, that there had not been a great take-up but that was not necessarily out of line with expectations "because very often their local school is the school people want to go to".[26]

31. The mechanisms which Local Authorities are using to identify children who are eligible for the extended entitlement to free school transport are not sufficiently robust. We recommend that the Government put in place mechanisms to help local authorities identify pupils who are eligible for the new entitlement. The Government and local authorities should also ensure that parents and pupils are aware of the new entitlement.

32. We welcome the extension of provision of free school transport for pupils from low income families. We are, however, concerned that the maximum travel distance of six miles does not allow for a choice of schools in rural areas. We recommend that the Government should establish how many eligible pupils in rural areas have more than one school within a six mile radius of their home. The Government needs to establish whether allowing pupils from low income families to receive free transport within a six mile radius, even if they do not attend their closest school, has had a positive impact on the availability of a choice of schools for those pupils.

33. Although we accept that the aim of ensuring young people from low income families are not educationally disadvantaged by the cost of travel is important, we are concerned that several witnesses suggested that there has been a reduction in the discretionary school transport provided by Local Authorities.[27] Ian Gwenlan of the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers suggested that this was partly a result of increased statutory duties on local authorities in respect of school transport.[28] We recommend that the Government should establish to what extent Local Authorities have removed discretionary provisions since the extended statutory duties came into force.

34. In November 2008 the Local Transport Act received Royal Assent. The Department for Transport claimed that the Act would:

  • Give local authorities the right mix of powers to improve the quality of local bus services, as proposed in Putting Passengers First in December 2006 following an extensive bus policy review;
  • Allow for the creation of an influential new bus passenger champion to represent the interests of bus passengers, and
  • Give local authorities the power to review and propose their own arrangements for local transport governance to support more coherent planning and delivery of local transport.[29]

35. Witnesses were cautious in predicting the success of the Act in promoting a more integrated approach to school travel planning as part of a wider transport network. Les Warneford of Stagecoach when asked in October 2008 if the Local Transport Bill would improve the working relationship between travel operators and Local Authorities, told us that "I think it is silent on that matter".[30] However, Mark Hudson, 14-19 Rural Access to Learning Groups told us that he was hopeful that "the arrangements in the Local Transport Bill will help us towards ticketing and integrated fares".[31] The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport was more positive still, saying that the Act:

    would actually allow passenger transport executives and authorities to become integrated transport authorities, so taking responsibility across the board for transport requirements, and would actually help to have a far better joined-up view of the delivery.[32]

36. Some witnesses were critical of the lack of impact of the last piece of legislation which affected school travel, the Education and Inspections Act 2006. Modeshift felt it had done little to promote sustainable travel, saying, "There appears to be little evidence that the Education and Inspections [Act] has yet significantly changed activity in terms of implementation of measures."[33] We would welcome a more joined-up approach to school travel but it remains to be seen if the Local Transport Act will achieve this.


Table 1: Cost of, and funding for, school travel programmes

37. Funding for school transport comes primarily from the Revenue Support Grant from central government to local authorities and through income generated by local councils. The grant is not ring-fenced for particular services. As long as they meet their statutory duties, councils have the discretion to use their funding as they see fit. There is also funding for specific initiatives, as outlined in Table 1 above. The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Transport have jointly provided £140 million for the Travelling to School initiative. The Department of Health also funds, or partly funds, some initiatives, such as a contribution towards Cycling England and funding for Healthy Towns which, while not aimed exclusively at school travel, may contribute to supporting sustainable travel in general.

Figure 1: School travel expenditure of Local Authorities

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families, Benchmarking tables of LA planned expenditure 2008-09

38. As Figure 1 above shows, the amount of expenditure for school transport has increased significantly since 2000. Total spending has risen by nearly £379 million comprising a £141 million rise for secondary school transport, a £111 million increase for primary school transport and a £132 million rise in expenditure on school transport for pupils with special educational needs. Despite accounting for over one-third of the total increase in school transport expenditure, SEN pupils make up only 2.8 per cent of all pupils across England.[34]

39. Pupils with special educational needs are one of the groups given specific entitlement to free school transport under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. We heard that "Support for Special Educational Needs students to access learning opportunities represents a relatively small percentage of students but a significant proportion of overall expenditure".[35]

40. Some witnesses have argued that the relative difficulty in obtaining revenue funding compared to capital funding means that it is not necessarily the most effective measures that are implemented. [36] [37] First Group echoed this and said that:

    a problem is that school transport initiatives require both capital and revenue funding. In transportation the availability of central Government grants or permission to borrow for capital expenditure means that physical elements of school plans have a higher chance of implementation e.g. local traffic management schemes around schools while other, potentially higher value measures (school bus improvements, travel behaviour initiatives) do not because they require ongoing revenue funding which is generally scarce.[38]

41. There is also competition for funding, not just from other transport or education initiatives but from all services provided by local councils. On average, money for school transport makes up 0.5% of local authority budgets. Councillor Lawrence emphasised that school travel was only one of many competing priorities: "If an authority was asked to provide more money to facilitate the safeguarding of children as against the provision of support for travel plans, I do not think it would be difficult to see in which direction additional money would go."[39]

42. There are many suggestions for improving school travel but a limited amount of funding. Given the current economic climate, it is unlikely that large additional sums will become available for school travel initiatives in the short term. It is therefore all the more important that the Government ensures that money is spent in the most efficient way possible. We are concerned at the suggestion that some relatively inexpensive but effective projects that involve walking, for example the Walk Once a Week scheme that rewards children for walking to school with a sticker, are viewed less favourably, when it comes to funding, than other projects.[40] Given budget pressures and the importance of spending public money wisely and efficiently, we urge the Government to work with Local Authorities to see how low cost projects requiring revenue funding can be supported effectively.

43. We recognise that the Department for Transport and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are working together to fund school travel initiatives. The Department for Transport must make effective use of all possibilities to fund projects jointly with other Departments, for example drawing on Department of Health Healthy Towns funding towards infrastructure improvements to encourage cycling and walking.

16   Q 220 [Dr Thornthwaite] Back

17   Q 383 Back

18   Q 110 Back

19   Q 402 Back

20   Ev 74 Back

21   Ev 129 Back

22   Ev 166 Back

23   ibid Back

24   Q 47 Back

25   Ev 74 Back

26   Q 403 Back

27   Q 233 [Dr Thornthwaite], Q 286 [Ms Roche] Back

28   Q 351 Back

29   "Bus passengers to benefit from local transport bill - New passenger champion to be created", Department for Transport press release, 8 November 2007 Back

30   Q 212 Back

31   Q 272 Back

32   Q 408 Back

33   Ev 137 Back

34   Department for Children, Schools and Families, Statistical First Release 15/2008, Special Educational Needs in England, January 2008 Back

35   Ev 93 [South Yorkshire Strategic Education Transport Group]  Back

36   Capital funding is provided for expenditure which will have a long term (and usually tangible) benefit. Revenue funding relates to running expenses and is funding which needs to be renewed for benefits to continue. For example, purchasing a bike shed would be a capital cost but annual bike safety training would be a revenue cost. Back

37   Ev 92 Back

38   Ev 151 Back

39   Q 353 Back

40   Ev 125 [Living Streets] Back

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