Transport Bill leaves parents no choice
Government plans to tackle a crisis in school transport are confused, unambitious, and may worsen congestion, MPs have concluded.
The Commons education select committee published a highly critical report this week on the draft school transport Bill, which is due to go before Parliament later this year.
The Bill aims to cut school-run traffic by allowing a group of selected local authorities to pilot new transport schemes between 2006 and 2010, which other areas could then adopt. These authorities would be allowed to charge for bus journeys, providing the money was reinvested into school transport.
The committee said it agreed that school transport was "rapidly worsening" because of outdated legislation, spiralling costs, and a growing tendency for parents to drive their children to school.
But the MPs said the Bill's aim of cutting traffic was at odds with the Government's push to provide greater parental choice in education.
"The Secretary of State has said that the Bill will encourage more children to walk or cycle to their local school," the MPs' report said.
"Yet this does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference - an approach that encourages greater mobility."
The creation of more specialist schools, as well as the drive to create "extended" and to encourage pupils to study a greater range of courses would add to the pressure on school transport, they said.
The Bill, said MPs, only guaranteed free public transport for low-income families who picked their nearest school, leaving them with less choice than better-off parents.
Local authorities, said the MPs, were not enthusiastic about the bus charges and feared they might cause unacceptable increases in car use. They added that 2011 seemed a "very long time to wait" for a national solution to the transport problem.
Other select committee recommendations included that the Bill should place a greater focus on pupils with special educational needs and that local authorities should consider putting escorts or CCTV cameras on school buses to prevent pupil misbehaviour.
The Conservatives have suggested that Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, wishes to withdraw the Bill because it will be unpopular with parents.
But Mr Clarke dismissed the claims as "rubbish-mongering". "It is a draft Bill which has yet to be introduced and cannot therefore be withdrawn," he said.
The draft school transport Bill report is at www.parliament.uk