School transport consultation finds support for charges
There is "broad support" for parents to pay a charge for home to school transport.
That is one of the findings of an initial consultation by the Department of Education (DE) into school transport.
However respondents also said any fee would have to be accompanied by an expansion of the service.
No major changes can be made to school transport policy, though, in the absence of a minister.
Home to school
Pupils are currently eligible for free home to school transport if they live more than three miles from their post-primary school or two miles from their primary school.
About 84,000 pupils currently benefit, at an annual cost to the Education Authority of £81m.
That is just over a quarter of all pupils in Northern Ireland.
However demand for free transport is expected to cost an additional £7m a year in future.
As the current policy has not been altered for 20 years, the Department of Education has carried out an initial consultation on whether there should be changes to it.
More than 5,500 people responded to an online questionnaire while government departments, school principals, politicians, charities and unions were also consulted.
"Across the board there was good support for introducing a small parental contribution in any future new policy if it meant keeping the policy criteria as they are currently or expanding eligibility," the department's summary of the consultation said.
However, that option was much more popular among parents not currently eligible for transport assistance than those who receive it.
The Education Authority had previously considered charging some parents for school transport.
Respondents to the consultation said families on low incomes should be exempt from any charge.
However, by contrast, there was also strong support among the responses for transport to be offered free to all school pupils.
It was also suggested the distance at which pupils became eligible for free transport should be reduced to two miles for post-primary and one mile for primary.
Many parents and children expressed concern about the safety of children getting school transport, especially in rural areas.
Concerns included "children walking or waiting for buses on roads with no footpaths or street lighting".
A full public consultation would have to take place before any major policy changes and would also have to be approved by a future education minister.
A pupil can also be eligible for free school transport if they have a statement of special educational needs, but changes to that policy were not considered as part of the consultation.