Northern Ireland

Education Authority considers ending free school transport

School bus
Image caption The BBC understands the Education Authority is considering charging parents a yearly fee of between £50-£200 per pupil for school transport

Charging families for school transport which is currently free is part of a package of measures being considered by the Education Authority (EA).

Currently, primary school pupils get free transport if they live more than two miles from their school.

For post-primary pupils the eligible distance is three miles.

It is not yet clear how much the EA would propose to charge per pupil, but the BBC understands a yearly fee of between £50-£200 is being considered.

The EA's chief executive Gavin Boyd said it "could not continue to do all of the same things in all of the same ways as we have done in the past".

He also said that the EA would launch a consultation on the plans before any changes are introduced.

Image caption Gavin Boyd, chief executive of the Education Authority, said his organisation was facing significant financial challenges

If adopted, the EA board has discussed the charge coming into force at the beginning of the new school year in September 2017.

In the Republic of Ireland, there is currently an annual charge of 100 euros (£87) for each primary school pupil eligible for school transport, and 350 euros (£305) for each post-primary pupil.

The maximum amount any family there can be charged for school transport is 650 euros (£566) per year.

The EA provides a range of services to schools including transport, meals, support for special needs, school maintenance and information and communications technology (ICT).

The body needs to make savings of about £45m in 2016/17.

It must save a further £50m in 2017/18 and £37m in 2018/19.

'Unpalatable decisions'

Its budget allocation from the Department of Education (DE) was reduced by £22m in 2016/17 and they also face additional cost pressures.

Eligibility for free transport to and from school is not means tested, and about 90,000 pupils currently benefit from it.

Providing it, which includes pupil bus passes for use on Translink buses or travel on EA operated buses, costs the EA £75m in 2016/17.

Some of that bill would be reduced by introducing a fee for transport to and from school for pupils who currently receive bus passes or get free transport on EA buses.

However, the EA will still pay the majority of transport costs.

Image caption About 90,000 pupils currently benefit from free school transport in Northern Ireland

The EA is also proposing other measures to save money, having warned board members of "difficult and unpalatable decisions" it would have to take to stay within its budget, which is set by the Department of Education.

Substitute teachers

These include a phased 10p increase on the price of school meals, which has already been introduced, taking the cost of a primary school meal to £2.60.

It is also expected that schools will be asked to contribute more to the cost of substitute teachers.

In a statement, Mr Boyd said that the authority was facing significant financial challenges.

"We have been considering every aspect of our spending and service delivery," he said.

"Transport reform is a key part of our review of services."

"A range of options are being considered including whether some parents may be asked to contribute to the costs of providing school transport."

"Any proposed change to existing home to school transport policy would be subject to the education minister's approval, full public consultation and equality impact assessment."

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