Thursday 22 November 2012

Carmarthenshire and school bus charges

Following on from our look at Leighton Andrews' plans for education in Wales, Carmarthenshire County Council is providing the minister with another compelling reason as to why this county council at least should not be left in charge of education.

Just as the Welsh Government is busy trying to persuade more pupils to stay in full-time education until the age of 18, Carmarthenshire is planning to introduce new charges which will make staying at school a very expensive proposition for many families in the county.

Buried away in Carmarthenshire County Council's budget package approved at the beginning of 2012 were several time bombs, including a provision to end free school transport for children aged 16+. The council  estimated that this would yield an annual saving of £477,000.

Almost no detail has so far been provided, but parents need to brace themselves for what will certainly be a massive additional burden on household budgets.

The first question is how the council arrives at a figure of £477,000.

Carmarthenshire is geographically a largely rural county, and many children face long journeys to school. Thanks to the Modernising Education Programme and the closure of schools, more and more children will need school transport over long distances.

School buses will need to run regardless of whether they carry pupils who have turned 16, and the cost of running a bus carrying 25 12-16 year-olds is pretty much the same as a bus which carries 35 12-18 year-olds.

Unless there are cases where the authority needs to run additional buses because of the number of 16-18 year-olds, the buses will have to run regardless.

So the next question is what agreements does the council have in place with bus companies? We can be sure that any FOI request would be refused on the basis that this is, conveniently, commercially sensitive information. But councillors may like to ask whether services are paid as a flat fee per route or per head. Since many school buses do not run at anything like full capacity, the likelihood is that a flat charge per route is an important component in the charging structure.

Will this measure actually save real money, or is it in reality an exercise in revenue raising?

Crucially for parents, how will charges be introduced? Will money be collected by the bus companies, or will it be collected by the council?

Will provision be made for children whose parents are on low or modest incomes (a very high proportion of children in many cases)?

Will children have to start paying once they have reached their 16th birthday, as seems to be the case? If so, quite a few children will have to start paying before they take their GCSEs.

And how will charges be calculated? Per mile? If charges are on a par with normal commercial bus routes, it will cost parents hundreds of pounds a year for one child, and very likely a figure equivalent to what the average family spends on energy bills if you are unfortunate enough to have more than one 16 year-old at school.

Of course, it may not come to this because we are now fortunate to have a Deputy Leader and Executive Board member (Cllr Pam Palmer no less) responsible for looking after the interests of rural communities in the county, although it is not at all clear what she has done in the seven months she has occupied that post.

According to the official decision record, she has so far clocked up a single meeting which ran for 20 minutes at the beginning of October to approve the council's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

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