Free school transport facing cutbacks
EDUCATION bosses are set to cut free school transport for many primary school children in a bid to save £1million.Essex County Council, which is anticipating a £64m cut in the education budget over the next three years, is proposing to toughen the qualifying distance criteria for free school transport for four to 11-year-olds.
By Juliette Maxam
EDUCATION bosses are set to cut free school transport for many primary school children in a bid to save £1million.
Essex County Council, which is anticipating a £64m cut in the education budget over the next three years, is proposing to toughen the qualifying distance criteria for free school transport for four to 11-year-olds.
Currently, Essex is more generous than other education departments, giving free school transport to infant pupils living 1.5 miles away from school, and to juniors living two miles away from school.
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But now the county council is looking to increase the distances to two miles for children under the age of eight and three miles for children aged eight or older, bringing Essex in line with Government guidelines.
The change would shave £1m off the £4.3m primary school "home to school" budget. It is not yet clear exactly how many pupils will be affected.
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The proposal is at a consultation stage, which ends on March 31. So far there have been just under 100 responses. If education bosses decide to press ahead with the change, it will come into effect from this September.
"Expenditure on home to school transport is increasing above the rate of inflation. This is taking funds that would otherwise be delegated to schools for the provision of education to children," said Iris Pummell, Essex cabinet member with responsibility for education, in a letter to primary school parents.
"It is also the case that the budget settlement for Essex County Council for the year 2003/2004 is well below the rate of the expected increase in the cost of home to school transport if there is no change in policy."
Last night, North East Essex NUT spokeswoman Jean Quinn said: "If they've got these cuts changing the free transport policy is going to be a relatively painless way of saving money, although it seems unfair to children in rural areas."
Essex lost out when the Government drew up new formulas for giving money to local authorities. But the Government guaranteed an increase in funding of at least 3.2% per school pupil in the country, so it gave Essex County Council education department a £44.4m "damping" grant for 2003/4 to make up the shortfall between this year's budget settlement and the promised education rise.
The Government has not said if it will give this grant next year, so the county is anticipating it will be axed.
In addition standards fund grants – extra Government money given to schools to achieve specific targets, such as retaining newly qualified teachers - are being abolished over the next three years and education departments are expected to make up the shortfall from within their budgets. This represents a further £20m cut to the Essex education budget.
Mrs Pummell admitted the £1m that could be saved by changing the primary home to school transport policy is a drop in the ocean but added: "Saving £1m on free transport is £1m more that can go into schools, because it's the education of children I'm really concerned about, especially with standards fund grants going, it's going to be really difficult to retain teachers."
Mrs Pummell has warned the cuts in the education budget will lead to either losses in teaching jobs or a big council tax hike.
A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said it was misleading to suggest Essex is going to lose £64 million from its education budget. "We guarantee a real term increase of 3.2% per pupil for all authorities. We guarantee it will be maintained for as long as necessary."
A proposed change to the home to school transport policy for secondary school pupils was scrapped due to widespread opposition to it.