THERE are fears over school attendance declining and the impact on Welsh medium education if proposals to make changes to Rhondda Cynon Taf’s free school transport service go ahead.
The main changes relate to the distances which are eligible for free transport for mainstream primary, secondary and college pupils which would bring them in line with the statutory distance requirements, the council said.
At the cabinet meeting in November, councillors heard that as many as 2,700 pupils might no longer have access to the service if the proposal went ahead.
Under the proposals, primary pupils who live two miles or further from their nearest suitable school would continue to receive free transport, with the current distance being 1.5 miles.
Mainstream secondary and college pupils who live three miles or further from their nearest suitable school would continue to receive free transport, with the current distance being two miles.
Under the proposal, allowing a pupil to select their nearest suitable school in accordance with choice of English or Welsh-medium language or preferred religious denomination would continue, as would providing pre-compulsory school age transport and post-16 transport.
The discretionary elements of Additional Learning Needs (ALN) transport would not change, the council said.
The changes which cabinet has agreed to consult on, would bring the provision for mainstream primary, secondary and college pupils in line with the statutory distance requirements, the council said.
The council said it delivered the largest operation of its kind in Wales in a “generous provision” where 9,000 pupils received free transport on a discretionary basis – beyond the statutory level set out in the Welsh Government’s learner travel measure.
The council added that over the last eight years the council’s home to school transport costs had increased from £8m in 2015 to more than £15m for the 2023/24 financial year.
The proposal would result in savings of £2.5m per year from 2026/27 financial year with the part-year savings for 2025/26 being £1.4m.
The council said that due to the financial pressures it was facing, it was considering changes to current home to school transport policy, to align transport provision more closely with Welsh Government statutory transport requirements.
It said this was necessary for the council to maintain affordability within future financial constraints, continue to be able to meet its statutory requirements; and maintain discretionary transport for its most vulnerable users (i.e. ALN pupils).
At a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee on Wednesday, December 13, Councillor Gaynor Warren of Church Village said: “With this service change, attendance figures will decline considerably especially from my ward in Church Village which has a lot of vulnerable pupils, it’s a socially deprived area.
“They have no money for the transport anyway and they won’t prioritise getting their children to school so from our point of view attendance will decline.”
Councillor Susan Morgans said the Welsh primary school in her ward of Ferndale was moving a mile and a half away to Maerdy so children from Ferndale would now not be entitled to free transport, but families were under the impression that they would get free transport when the school was relocated.
She said: “We really do think we will lose numbers because of this.”
“We are looking to increase the numbers in our Welsh medium schools and yet we won’t be able to have free transport for the children who are already attending the school.”
Stephen Williams, the council’s director of transportation services, said people might choose different schools such as Welsh schools if they were outside the catchment purely for the transport provision.
He said 21% of the pupils affected by the proposals went to a Welsh school but the choice for Welsh or faith schools remained and transport would still be provided.
Education director Gaynor Davies said growing the Welsh medium sector was really important to the council and it would take the feedback and key themes back to cabinet.
Councillor Sera Evans raised concern about how the proposal would impact Welsh medium education in terms of take up.
She said: “I would hate to see this having a detrimental impact and us being able to attribute lack of take up to Welsh medium education due to this change.
And she added: “I do think it will have a negative impact on attendance.”
Cllr Evans said she understood they were providing over and above what was statutory at present and that they had to make cuts but that they did need to be “very considerate” around what the safe routes to school were.
And she said she thought it was going to negatively impact on RCT’s carbon footprint.