School transport talks

PARENTS have been reassured free buses to and from faith schools will continue for the next academic year.

Hartlepool Borough Council was considering axing £125,000 of funding in a move which would affect 340 pupils at English Martyrs School and Sixth Form College, in Catcote Road.

But last-minute budget amendments agreed by full council will see the transport continue for the 2012-13 academic year.

The cabinet committee met this week to discuss the results of a consultation about the future of the service and to decide a way forward.

The consultation revealed 98.3 per cent, or 581 out of the 591 that responded, were against changes to the current transport policy.

Three options were presented to councillors:

l Continue to provide free transport to denominational secondary schools;

l Remove free transport to all denominational secondary schools from September 2013;

l Starting from September 2013, free concessionary travel would stop for all new pupils. But existing pupils who already receive the transport would continue until they left the school or changed address.

The cabinet agreed to continue providing the free transport in the short term and called for a detailed report about the other options to come back in June.

One option could see the council use its own fleet of buses and charge a concessionary fare – and 88 per cent of consultation responses were in favour of that.

Hartlepool Mayor Stuart Drummond, who said the consultation process was confusing, said: “We are going with option one to continue, at present, with free transport.

“That is funded in the budget and nothing will change that.

“In the meantime we need to see a report back here with the detailed options, which will then be considered here and presented to the full council.”

He also asked officers to present the options in the “simplest terms possible”.

Cabinet member and independent Seaton councillor Cath Hill said it was not possible to continue funding the service long term.

Coun Hill said: “Because of the cuts imposed on us by the Government we can’t afford to do this.

“If we carry on doing this there will be some other areas of the council that will suffer.”

But Coun Hill added that it would be “unfair” to stop free travel for those pupils already at the school and said it should continue for them until they leave.

Independent Elwick councillor Hilary Thompson said: “The current provision is positive discrimination and could be challenged as such.”

Coun Thompson added: “I note that there is a further report coming with the financial implications, but we can’t carry on as we are because of the financial implications.”

The transport was being considered because it is not a statutory requirement.

But the council does have a statutory duty to provide home-to-school transport for secondary school pupils whose school is more than three miles away from their home and for primary school pupils whose school is more than two miles from their home.

In addition, the council has a statutory responsibility to provide free transport to those pupils who are from low income families.