Northern Ireland

Free school transport for Northern Ireland pupils to be examined

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Image caption Pupils can be eligible for free transport depending on where they live

Northern Ireland's education minister has agreed to carry out a feasibility study into providing free public transport for all school pupils.

John O'Dowd was responding to an Alliance Party motion that called on him to work with Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy on the study.

Mr O'Dowd said the cost of rolling-out free school transport to all pupils would be "astronomical".

He said that at the moment free transport was based on distance.

He said it was offered to primary school pupils who lived two miles away and post-primary pupils who lived three miles from their school.

The minister said in 2012/13, £74m had been spent funding school transport and that this would rise to £200m per year plus an additional £500m in capital investment in buses if free transport was offered to all pupils.

The proposer of the motion, East Belfast MLA Judith Cochrane, said that pupils with special education needs or disabilities could also currently avail of free school transport.

Mrs Cochrane said two in every five pupils were driven to school and she highlighted the health and social benefits of using school transport.

Education committee chairman Mervyn Storey said the school transport system needed to be reviewed.

He said bus passes came into operation in October, a month after the school year had begun, and did not expire until the summer months.

Mr Storey also said a report on the common funding scheme for schools had recommended that the eligibility for free transport should be reviewed and that the possibility of some parents contributing to costs should be considered.

Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard said he supported the idea of examining the best way to use taxpayers money but said he was not convinced that free school transport was "the way forward".

Danny Kinahan of the UUP said one transport company had said that if one firm was given the job of managing the work of all schools, current costs could be reduced by half.

Mr Kinahan said he would like this included in any feasibility study.

The SDLP's John Dallat said the current school transport system was "hopelessly out of date".