Demand and costs are pushing free school transport in England “to breaking point”, a new report has revealed.
Local authorities are now spending more than £1 billion per year year on school transport, according to the analysis.
In five years, councils could be spending up to £1.2 billion on home-to-school transport, the report estimates, noting this is “considerably more than is spent nationally on youth services, family support services or children's centres.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for the Government to use a current review of special educational needs and disabilities services to understand the pressures on free school transport and fully fund the scheme.
Commissioned by the LGA and County Councils Networks with analysis by Ipsos Partnership , the report found that national spending on home-to-school transport increased by around £60 million in a three-year period, reaching £1.8 billion in 2017/18.
Continuing to fund school transport in the same way “may not be financially sustainable”, the report states.
The report found that more than eight in 10 councils (83%) are overspending their school transport budgets.
Costs associated with providing transport for children with special educational needs and disabilities is fuelling increased expenditure – it increased by 13 per cent for under-16s and by 68 per cent for those over 16, and now accounts for over two thirds (69 per cent) of school transport budgets, the report added.
At the same time, there has been a 12 per cent drop in spending on mainstream transport for children aged 16 and under, and a 27 per cent fall for those post-16.
Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the LGA's children and young people board, said: "Free school transport is a lifeline for many pupils and their families but it must be adequately funded if councils are to meet their legal duties to all children and young people.”
"This cross-government review of special educational needs and disabilities (Send) support is good news and needs to identify how we can tackle the immense demand pressures councils are facing in providing vital care and support for children and young people with Send, including home-to-school transport.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: "We want to make sure that children are able to access the free home to school transport they are entitled to, which is why we recently consulted on a revised version of the statutory home to school transport guidance.
"We will consider the recommendations outlined in this report alongside our response."
The LGA said that around 550,000 young people currently get free transport each year. Of these, around 145,000 are pupils with Send.
Current rules require councils to provide transport under certain circumstances, for example if a child lives more than a set distance from their school, or if they are special needs of mobility issues.