Parents pay thousands in ‘daft’ charges for empty seats on council school bus services

A file picture of a school bus. Picture: Antony Kelly

A file picture of a school bus. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

Parents in Norfolk have paid more than £200,000 for empty seats on council school bus services.

In 2016/17, Norfolk County Council received £210,131 under its discretionary travel scheme (DTS), which applies to parents whose children are not eligible for free school travel.

As of December, almost 15,000 children in Norfolk received free school transport - mainly those who attend their nearest catchment school but live more than a two-mile walk away if younger than eight, or three miles away if older.

While many of these travel on local bus routes, or via taxi or minibus, some students travel on contracted bus services.

And children who do not meet the criteria may still secure a spot on one of these services if there are empty seats - but must pay, under the DTS. As of December, 419 children were using the scheme.

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While the council says the cost - which ranges from £79 to £139 per term depending on age and circumstance - is a contribution to the whole cost of transport, some parents have criticised the charges, and say they are difficult to justify.

Though the council earned just over £210,000 last year, it made £90,000 in both 2015/16 and 2014/15 and £159,057 in 2013/14.

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A spokesperson for the council said it had a duty to provide enough capacity to ensure eligible children could receive free school transport.

'Much of the capacity is provided on local bus services, but on some closed contract services there will be a small number of spare seats which we can make available to pupils who do not qualify for free transport,' they said.

'This discretionary travel scheme matches up vacant seats with pupils who do not qualify for free transport and is very good value to families in terms of cost per journey.'

They said charges were increased in line with inflation, meaning fluctuations in the figures were due to a variety of factors, including changes in contracts.

The figures, revealed under a Freedom of Information request, also showed the council pays roughly £25m a year to bus, taxi and minibus operators, with £27.73m spent in 2016/17.

'It seems daft'

Niall Cook has been signed up to the DTS since his daughter started high school in September.

They chose Wymondham High - where her friends were headed and, for them, the right fit, but a school which is a little over half a mile away from their catchment school.

Mr Cook said the issue was not the cost itself - but the justification behind it.

'It seems daft,' he said. 'How much extra is it costing the council? It's an empty seat - the bus isn't full, and there's no change to the cost.

'The more I questioned it, it just felt like a money-maker.'

He said parents could end up feeling discriminated against for using their right to choose the best school for them - something the government has tried to promote over the last few years.

'It does feel like you are penalised for exercising a choice you have been encouraged to exercise,' he said.

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