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Education (Cost Of School Transport)

Volume 82: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1985

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4.28 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require a local authority to meet the travel costs of a child attending a school where the parents have nominated a school other than that chosen by the authority providing the necessary criteria are met as regards the age of the child and the distance to be travelled and subject to certain limitations or distance.
The Bill would make certain provisions for local education authorities to provide free school transport for those children whose parents had exercised their right under section 6 of the Education Act 1980 to nominate a school of their preference. This would be subject to two conditions being met. First, the present criteria of the age of the child and the distance of the child's home from the school would have to be satisfied. Secondly, the school chosen by the parents would have to be within the area of either their own or an adjacent local education authority.

The law relating to the provision of school transport is far from clear. For some time past there has been considerable speculation about precisely what is the obligation of local education authorities towards school transport.

The commonly accepted position is that the combined effect of section 56(1) and (2) and section 39 of the Education Act 1944 is that a local education authority is under a duty to provide free school transport for children who live beyond walking distance to attend the nearest suitable school. "Suitable" in that context is taken to mean suitable in terms of age, aptitude and, where appropriate, sex and religious denomination. Walking distance for a child of eight or under is two miles and, for a child above that age, three miles.

The significance of free transport can be readily seen in the context of Devon, the third largest shire in England. Third only to north Yorkshire and Cumbria, it covers about 2,500 square miles and has about 8,125 miles of roads, twice the mileage of any other county.

Before the passing of the Education Act 1980, disputes in Devon about the circumstances in which free transport should be available could have presented themselves only where the parents were of a specific religious denomination. The passing of the Education Act 1980 changed all that. Section 6 gave parents the right, subject to some safeguards, to have their children educated at a state school of their choice. The question that immediately arises is whether, when all the other conditions are met, the local authority can be compelled to meet the cost of school transport for those who exercise their rights under the Act.

There is an argument in logic, though not in reality, that the state should not have to provide free school transport. Although a parent has a choice about where he wishes to live, this country has had compulsory state education for well over a century, and no reasonable person would seriously question the state's obligation to provide free school transport in appropriate cases. A citizen's ability to exercise his right is therefore dependent upon his having the financial resources to do so, and that cannot be right.

The problem was not unforeseen. In one of their proposals for what eventually became the Education Act 1980, the Government tried to change the law to provide what in their view would have been a fairer system. Under those proposals the local authorities would have been able to arrange school transport and charge for it at a flat rate, while offering it free where there was genuine financial hardship. It is a matter of history now that those proposals were defeated in another place. I doubt whether the ramifications of what was done would have been fully appreciated at the time.

In a statement of guidance issued on 15 December 1981, the Department of Education and Science pointed out that the law relating to the provision of school transport and the payment of travel expenses had not been changed, although the Secretary of State asked LEAs to consider offering free or concessionary transport, or to pay travelling expenses for children whose parents succeeded in obtaining a place for them in a school not considered to be the nearest appropriate one to their home, provided that the distance requirements were satisfied. In so far as one can generalise, LEAs were apparently appalled by that suggestion.

The present position can no longer be tolerated. Section 55(1) of the Education Act 1944 imposed a duty on LEAs to make such arrangements for the provision of transport "as they consider necessary". Are we now to have two classes of school — those considered by the local authority to be necessary and those chosen by parents in the exercise of their statutory rights under section 6 which are in some way considered to be unnecessary? To put it another way, LEAs are under an obligation to provide transport to the nearest appropriate school, and normally that would mean that the LEA had arranged for the student to attend what it would regard as being the nearest appropriate school. Are we now saying that if a parent is successful at first instance or on appeal in nominating a school under section 6, that is not to be considered as appropriate? That is the way in which the law is being interpreted at present. Devon county council regards the appropriate school as being the one that it chooses, and that position has been echoed by other LEAs.

A number of LEAs have emphasised that a lack of free transport to other than the nearest appropriate school—as decided by them—was a factor that should weigh heavily with parents when stating their preferences.

Inevitably, in a completely unsatisfactory position anomalies abound. It would be possible for a parent to choose a school that was nearer than that chosen by the authority, so that at first sight the local authority would make a saving, only to find that the local authority would make a far bigger saving because it would not contribute. It would be equally possible for a parent, who lives just inside the border of his own LEA, to choose a school that was just the other side of the border, still sufficiently far away, apparently, to qualify for free transport, and to find that it would, nevertheless, be nearer than the nearest appropriate school within his own LEA area.

Hon. Members will be aware that the case of Rogers v Essex County Council is presently under appeal. That case is of course sub judice. In any event, it deals with a far narrower point — the considerations that may be taken into account in deciding the length of the route to the appropriate school. The Bill, while modest in its intentions, is more radical than that. It would ensure that in a matter of fundamental interest to us all no child is deprived of his rights merely because his parents cannot afford to exercise them.

I have no pride in authorship. There will be matters that hon. Members will wish to consider in Committee. Hon. Members might want to qualify the reference to an adjacent LEA by reference to a prescribed distance within that LEA. Important though that is, it would be a point of detail.

I have presented a measure that commands support from the two principal Opposition parties. It is a Bill that would remedy an injustice which, if not widespread, is significant. For that reason, I ask that I be given leave to introduce my Bill today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Patrick Nicholls, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Richard Hickmet, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Alex Carlile and Mr. Tony Speller.

Education (Cost Of School Transport)

MR. PATRICK NICHOLLS accordingly presented a Bill to require a local authority to meet the travel costs of a child attending a school where the parents have nominated a school other than that chosen by the authority providing the necessary criteria are met as regards the age of the child and the distance to be travelled and subject to certain limitations on distance: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 5 July and to be printed. [Bill 178.]