Data produced in 2017 shows that the City of Edinburgh Council spends just under £6.5m per year on home-to-school transport. This is a substantial sum of money, so does come under some scrutiny withing the context of the cuts the Scottish Government is forcing on our capital.
Under the Education Act, free home-to-school transport must be provided for children of school age: under 8 living 2 or more miles away; and, children aged 8 and over living 3 or more miles away, from their catchment school. The Council implements this as:
- 2 miles or over for primary aged children (some of these kids will be over 8)
- 3 miles or over for secondary aged children.
- Where there is no safe walking route.
These rules, particularly at primary level, mean most children are not eligible for free home-to-school transport. The main schools where children are eligible are Roman Catholic Schools; those in the more rural parts of the city (largely west Edinburgh); and, and schools with very large catchments due to their specialist nature: Edinburgh Music School and Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce (Gaelic Medium Education). The Scottish Government prevents Edinburgh from means-testing free home-to-school transport.
In addition to this, the Council has Special Schools where the education is specially suited to the additional support needs of children. Indeed, a quick glance at the “top 20” most expensive home-to-school transport schools shows that those for children with additional support needs dominate – they take up over two-thirds of the £6.5m budget.
Within this context, in May this year Councillors from all parties on the “Education, Children and Families Committee” unanimously backed a report entitled “Assisted Travel Policy and Guidelines – Home to School“. This report noted the Council “has a duty to implement Best Value for assisted home to school travel” and took the allocation of home-to-school transport out of the hands of headteachers in Special Schools, and gave it to a group entitled the “Travel Allocation Panel”. This approach does have the benefit of providing more consistency across the city, but it does also place more pressure on parents.
In the past few days I have been contacted by a number of parents with children at Braidburn School in my Ward who have had their home-to-school transport support removed or fear it will be. Yesterday I supported one parent’s appeal in the strongest possible terms after home-to-school transport for her son was removed, despite his very significant support needs, just a few weeks before term starts. She does not drive and her son has a developmental age of under 3. She told me she wants him to become more independent, but “he will refuse to walk or expect to be carried and I physically cannot lift him for that length of time.” and “I was offered £4 a day to get the normal bus which is as much of a walk to the school and completely pointless. Apparently this is a life lesson for our children as they grow that transport is not reality.” Braidburn School is 450m from the nearest bus stop.
I have spoken at length with the home-to-school transport team about this and they understand the pressure families are under. They are looking at other ways to cut costs such as bringing services back in-house (already proven cheaper) and reducing the need to hire coaches/taxis by asking Lothian Buses to adjust their routes. In West Edinburgh the safety of walking/cycling routes will be improved to reduce the need to issue bus passes or hire coaches/taxis.
The problem the Council faces, however, is that it has very little discretion over who has access to home-to-school transport, but there is flexibility where Special School are concerned. However, I think most people in Edinburgh feel that services for children with additional support needs should be the very last things that are cut. If we can’t stop Scottish Government cuts, we should be shaving every spare penny off other schools’ home-to-school transport budgets before we force mums to carry their children to school.