Cheshire East Council’s Cabinet has voted in favour of cutting home-to-school transport for denominational schools as part of a drive to meet budget constraints.
It also voted to halve the concessionary bus subsidy allocated to post-16 students and task the schools and colleges themselves to manage their own sustainable transport needs.
Eligible young people with special education needs (SENs) will benefit from independent travel training, as part of a long-term plan to cut the number of taxis taking children to and from school.
The move has been debated since July last year, with a task and finish group having made recommendations after further consulting with the diocese, parents, schools and other interested parties.
Councillor Hilda Gaddum, Cabinet member with responsibility for children and families, said: “This is about delivering equitable school transport policies across the Borough that are fair to all children and fair to taxpayers.
“After deliberating on this issue for the best part of a year now, the decision was not just about whether we went ahead with this but how we move forward with the plans.
“These issues have been out in the public domain for some time now and have been consulted upon widely. I believe that we made the only decision available to us – to prioritise services that are statutory and make changes to policies that are by no means fair and good value for taxpayers.”
Councillor Wesley Fitzgerald, Leader of Cheshire East Council, echoed Councillor Gaddum’s views. He said: “We inherited these policies from Cheshire County Council and in my view, and plenty of other local authorities’, this is a service that we just cannot afford.
“Why should parents who choose to send their children to faith schools be supported, when other parents do not receive the same support for sending their children to a school that specialises in, say, maths or music, outside of their immediate catchment area?
“This is an unfair subsidy and we must divert any available funds where they are desperately needed – supporting vulnerable adults and young people who need our support more than ever in these times of economic austerity.”
The cuts are designed to save taxpayers £1.5m between now and 2015 and will take effect this autumn.
The decision means Cheshire East Council will no longer subsidise transport to primary and secondary schoolchildren whose parents choose to send their children to a denominational school that isn’t their nearest school. This will save taxpayers approximately £230,000.
Cabinet agreed to halve the amount devoted to the heavily-subsidised concessionary travel for post-16 students. A substantial element of the savings released will be given directly to the affected sixth forms and colleges as a one-off payment to enable them to allocate to their most needy students. These funds will be ring fenced for this use only. This will save taxpayers approximately £375,000 a year, but retain financial support for those students who most need it.
Cabinet agreed to invest in independent travel training for children with special educational needs (SEN). Taxis are used to transport children to and from school in many cases but some SEN children may benefit from being assisted to find more suitable types of transport with the right level of encouragement and support from the council.
Around 8,500 children currently benefit from free or subsidised transport across Cheshire East, representing a £9.9m bill for taxpayers.
Cheshire East Council has a statutory duty to provide free transport to schoolchildren whose nearest primary school is more than two miles away and whose nearest secondary school is more than three miles away. Schoolchildren and their families, who meet low income criteria, will also continue to receive free transport.
Cheshire East Council deferred a decision on these recommendations last year, following concerns that more work was needed to understand in depth the impacts of the changes.
A task and finish group was set up and they met a total of 18 times to consider feedback from denominational groups, parents and schools. Members were drawn from the children and families scrutiny committee and the environment and prosperity scrutiny committee.
The group examined in detail the issues raised by the public during the consultation period last year. A majority report and a minority report were drawn up and these were taken into account by Cabinet in making their decision.
A report outlining the key recommendations that Cabinet considered is available online at www.cheshireeast.gov.uk (go to the council and democracy table, then scroll down to ‘Your Council’ and click on ‘Agendas, Minutes and Reports’ and then ‘Cabinet’).