Following a meeting with Durham County Council, and a meeting with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, Mary has written to parents that have been impacted by the rise in cost of school transport.
Here is the text of that letter:
Firstly, I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me over recent weeks regarding the announced substantial rise in the cost of school transport for pupils at St Leonard’s RC School. I have been moved both by the sheer number of emails, letters and survey responses that I have received, as well as the touching personal testimony of so many parents, who have outlined the serious financial strain that this added expense will place upon their family. It is clear that these rising prices will indiscriminately hit families regardless of their income and will particularly affect those pupils who live in the towns and villages outside the centre of Durham, for whom alternative public transport provision can often be irregular, or unreliable. That is why in recent weeks, I have met with both Durham County Council and the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister for School Standards, to discuss this issue. I am writing to you now to provide an update regarding these discussions.
When I was first made aware of this issue, I contacted St Leonard’s Headteacher Mr Hammill, who explained that in early 2020, new public service vehicle accessibility regulations (PSVAR) came into effect, meaning that coach operators have had to upgrade their vehicles. Of course, these companies have since had to increase their charges to cover this cost, and this has impacted the amount that parents have been asked to pay.
In St Leonard’s case this cost increase has totalled a staggering £177,000 a year. After securing a one-off grant from the Diocese, St Leonard’s was able to absorb these costs for one year, but in light of the budgetary pressures which schools presently face, it is simply unable to continue this subsidy. Mr Hammill has presented a stark picture of the choice the school faces: this sum is equivalent to four teachers’ salaries. It is truly alarming that schools are forced to choose between cutting their staffing budgets or assisting pupils to get to school in such economically uncertain times. Although the cost of school transport is paid by the school, via the charges levied on parents, school transport is organised and contracted by Durham County Council. I therefore met with the Corporate Director for Children and Young People’s Services, John Pearce, and the Portfolio Holder, Councillor Ted Henderson, who outlined that the County Council is unable to provide any additional financial contribution or subsidy beyond their present statutory duty to provide free transport for those who live over 3 miles away from their nearest school.
At this meeting, the council outlined that without a substantial increase in funding from central government, the Local Authority lacks the necessary financial resources to provide additional assistance to families facing higher transport costs in an equitable way across the County Durham. While St Leonard’s is just one school where parents presently face increasing costs, it has been clear from my survey and discussions I have held with parliamentary colleagues, that the experience of parents in Durham is replicated across England. I also raised this issue in the House of Commons with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, asking that he meet with me to discuss school transport generally, but in particular the pressing problems faced by parents at St Leonard’s.
Sadly, the Secretary of State declined a meeting, but I did meet with the Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, on Tuesday 20 June, and presented to him the clear and pressing case for government action on this issue, and to put forward those arguments that parents have been making to me. In my view it is vital that Government take proactive steps to encourage and facilitate the use of both public service buses and dedicated buses for school transport. However, I highlighted that home to school transport must be affordable for families, otherwise we risk pricing children out of educational opportunities and placing more cars on already congested streets at peak times.
I made it clear to the Minister that in addition to unfairly hitting families’ budgets, in my view neither of these consequences are in keeping with the present Government’s stated goals of ‘levelling up’ or achieving net zero carbon emissions. In addition, we also discussed a range of alternative policy proposals which would combat this issue such as extending free bus travel for all U18s, as is currently enjoyed by pupils in London.
Despite raising these points and sharing the personal stories of how these costs will impact families, the Minister stated that while this was a compelling case, which he would take into account at the forthcoming spending review this Autumn, in his view it was unlikely that the Treasury would entertain such spending proposals this year. However, he has offered to join me in meeting with secondary school headteachers in the City of Durham to discuss this issue and others in greater detail in the autumn term.
I am under no illusion just how disappointing this news will be to parents, but I fully intend to keep raising this matter at every opportunity. Over the coming weeks and months, I will continue to work proactively alongside parents, school staff and the relevant authorities to explore options which could reduce the cost impact on families. Moreover, when Parliament returns in September, I will be redoubling my efforts to campaign on this issue and will continue to demand the Government take action as soon as possible to ensure no family is unable to afford to send their children to school.
Mary Kelly Foy MP