There should be more discretion in deciding when children in Lancashire are deemed eligible for free transport to school.
That was the message from Lancashire County Council’s Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali, who said that he knew of cases where siblings were missing whole days of education because they were subject to different rules to their brothers and sisters.
The authority’s free home to school transport policy has seen a series of changes which have reduced the non-statutory entitlements offered to families in recent years.
Whenever a change is introduced, children already benefiting from the previous arrangements retain them until they leave the school or move house. However, youngsters from the same family who start their school careers at a later date are assessed under the most recent regime.
County Cllr Ali said that the situation created anomalies - particularly if siblings do not all have the same daily destination due to a shortage of school places.
“[Some parents] have got children going to different schools which all start at 9am - so how does the mother or father get the three children to three different schools? One might get home to school transport and the others don’t.
“Things become very complicated. Every case is different and needs to be judged on its own merits, but [the current] discretion is quite minimal.
“In some cases, kids aren’t going to school a couple of days per week, because their parents can’t get them there [and] can’t afford the bus costs. They’re sitting at home waiting for another school place to become available,” said County Cllr Ali, adding that school transport issues were one of the biggest contributors to the caseload in his Pendle East division.
Cabinet member for schools, Phillippa Williamson, promised to look into the matter.
“The principle is that [council officers] should use their common sense and judgement,” she said.
Council leader Geoff Driver said he understood the concern, but added: “We have to bear in mind that if you have a scheme and you start varying it in certain circumstances, before you know it, you’re varying it all over the place.”
In 2018, the county council stopped offering subsidised transport to faith schools for children - other than from low-income families - whose parents had chosen to bypass a nearer school. However, pupils already receiving that subsidy previously continue to do so.
Similarly, since 2015, the authority has taken into account neighbouring districts and local authorities to the one in which a child lives when determining their nearest school - whereas previously the assessment was based on the family’s “geographical priority area”, a change which could lead to siblings attending different schools.
SCHOOL TRANSPORT RIGHTS
All children are entitled by law to free school transport if they meet certain criteria:
***They are under eight years old and have to walk more than two miles to the nearest qualifying school;
***They are aged eight or over and have to walk more than three miles to the nearest qualifying school;
***They are from a low-income background (determined by receipt of one of the qualifying benefits for free school meals or the maximum amount of Working Tax Credit) and are attending one of their three nearest schools - between two and six miles away for secondary pupils and over two miles away for primary.
***They are from a low-income background and attend their nearest school of faith, were admitted on faith grounds and the school is between two and 15 miles from their home.