As councils seek to make the budget cuts required of them, every part of their expenditure must come under scrutiny.
Local authorities are required to provide free transport to primary children living two miles or more from school and secondary students who live more than three miles away. For many years, most councils have made more generous provision, providing a free service to pupils who live more than one mile from primary and two miles from secondary schools.
Increasing numbers, however, are reverting to the statutory requirements to reduce costs, some by several million pounds a year. East Ayrshire Council is the latest to warn it is considering the change and, as in other areas, is facing angry opposition from parents from four primary schools with concerns about safety.
At a time when there is growing concern about children not being sufficiently active, resulting in an obesity epidemic, we should be encouraging more children to walk to school. In theory, this would be the simplest way of ensuring young people gained a level of daily exercise that would improve their long-term health prospects. In practice, it is more complicated.
Most five-year-olds should be capable of walking two miles and most 12-year-olds three miles but doing this twice a day in all weathers in addition to a full day of lessons is a lot to ask. It is likely to mean that some children won't go to school in bad weather.
And while the majority of pupils will live much closer to their schools than this, the number travelling longer distances is increasing as councils amalgamate small schools.
In many cases, there are educational advantages to this, giving pupils access to more resources and a wider range of subjects, but the main reason is to save money because the smallest schools have the highest cost per pupil. Shetland Council, for example, is planning to close 10 schools over the next four years.
Highland Council is to consider reducing the school day by half an hour for older primary pupils in addition to charging for school transport among measures to save £30 million over two years.
It is the responsibility of parents to ensure their children attend school but it is essential that all pupils are able to journey to school safely. In many cases where children live beyond easy walking distance of school this will require councils to provide transport, especially in rural areas.
It does not follow that it should be free but local authorities must recognise that theirs are not the only budgets being squeezed in these straitened times. If charges are made, free passes must be readily available, without embarrassment, for all who need them. At a time when universal benefits are under scrutiny, there is an appetite for considering what our priorities should be. It is difficult to argue that better-off older people should travel free when children must pay to get to school.
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