School transport campaigners told to accept ‘reality’

Essex County Council has rebuffed claims that its school transport policy has failed, in light of figures that show costs have increased by almost £3million in four years.

Instead the council argues that in 2019/20 it spent £2.5million less on mainstream school transport, when compared to 2015/16.

A Freedom of Information request by parent action group, Essex Against School Transport Cuts (EASTC) has found that the Essex County Council policy introduced in 2015, which restricted school transport for secondary school children to ‘nearest school only’ and withdrew college transport from over 16s, has instead of saving £3.8million a year, cost £2.7million a year more to the taxpayer.

The campaign adds that under the policy which 72 per cent of Essex residents opposed in 2014, 7,334 fewer children are being transported on publicly funded buses than in 2014.

Essex County Council has focused on the money it has saved in mainstream transport costs – calculated to be £2.5 million less.

The amount spent on special educational needs (SEN) transport has ballooned from £48,771 to £72,880, as the number of SEN children with a free transport plan has increased from 2,678 to 3,009.

Although the average cost per pupil has gone up from £3.71 to £5.65 per day, an increase of 66 per cent since the policy started, the average cost per mainstream pupil has increased from £6.03 to £6.60.

EASTC says it believes the reason for the escalating costs for fewer pupils is due to the council having to provide far more unique and expensive services than before after breaking with previous contracts with established routes, although Essex County Council said it does not hold that data in response to a separate Freedom of Information request.

The 2015 policy withdrew free transport to ‘catchment’ schools for 11 to 16-year-olds for the first time in 70 years.

Scott Wilson of the EASTC group, said: “It’s staggering that, aside from ignoring the moral case for partially withdrawing school transport access in our county, in trying to save money Essex County Council has ended up spending more taxpayers’ money.

“And the effect is that thousands more children are now having to walk or cycle long distances on unlit roads with no pavements or cycle paths, or parents are having to drive them to school, creating extra pollution and congestion.

“Essex County Council have gone back more than 70 years in stopping free transport to our children’s catchment schools and after six years there can be no escaping that this policy, which virtually no other council in the UK has been foolish enough to introduce, has been an unmitigated failure for our children, putting them and our environment at risk every day.

“We call on Essex County Council to reverse it immediately.”

Cllr Ray Gooding, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, which includes school transport, said: “The change to the education transport policy which took effect from September 2015 was to ensure fair and equitable provision across the county, as well as reducing expenditure.

“In 2019/20, the council spent £2.5million less on mainstream school transport, when compared to 2015/16. There is no doubt that the policy change has been completely successful in delivering much needed savings.

“We have absolutely no intention of reviewing or changing the policy in the manner suggested. The days of special deals for some areas (paid for by everybody else) are long gone and it is time the campaign group accepted this reality.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter