Consultation opens over free home to school transport
Members of the public are being asked whether the Northern Ireland executive should continue to provide free home to school transport.
That is one of the options in a consultation from the Department of Education (DE).
Around 84,000 pupils currently receive free school transport at an annual cost to DE of £81m.
However, no decision on changing how the service is run can be taken in the absence of a minister.
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Currently, primary school pupils get free transport if they live more than two miles from school.
For post-primary pupils the eligible distance is three miles.
As a result many pupils are taken to school in Education Authority (EA) buses or receive free passes for public transport.
Now DE has published a questionnaire to gauge the public response to any potential changes.
"The analysis of responses to this survey will provide the department with evidence to inform the development of home to school transport in Northern Ireland," it said.
The survey includes a series of questions on the subject with a number of options in each.
Question three, for instance, asks if the Northern Ireland executive should continue to provide free home to school transport.
Question four asks if in future free transport should be offered to all pupils, only pupils living in rural areas or only pupils eligible for free school meals.
It also asks if some parents should pay some of the cost of transport that is currently free.
That would be similar to the current system in the Republic of Ireland where many parents pay an annual charge towards their child's transport to school.
Question six, meanwhile, asks if the distance from home to school which allows a pupil to get free transport should be reduced.
It also asks if free transport should only be provided to pupils who choose their nearest suitable school.
Another question asks if funding should be diverted from other public services to offer the service to more pupils.
'Gathering ideas and shaping policy'
A DE spokesperson said that the current school transport policy had remained unchanged for around 20 years.
"However, in this very difficult financial climate, we need to seriously consider whether we can continue to do things in the same way," they added.
"The review is about gathering ideas and views on the shape of a future policy."
"Not all options would necessarily involve a reduction in expenditure or the number of pupils in receipt of home to school transport."
The consultation questionnaire will remain open until the end of March 2019, and a further consultation on options for change is planned to take place in early 2020.
However, any major changes to school transport policy - or how the service is paid for - would require ministerial approval.