Increasing School Choice The Sustainability Paradox Education Essay

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More children than ever before are being transported to school by car. Approximately 20% of traffic in morning rush hour traffic is on the school run. In the UK, walking and cycling to school have both declined significantly over the past decade. According to research undertaken by the Department for Transport between 1994 and 2004, the proportion of primary school children walking to school declined from 61% to 53%, while the proportion being driven to school has risen from 30% to 39%, with shifts of similar magnitude for secondary school students (National Statistics 2004). The school run leads directly to as many as 40 deaths and 900 serious injuries a year. The proposed extension of school choice in the UK will exacerbate the situation, as allowing parents to look further than their local catchment area school, is likely to result in greater numbers of children travelling longer distances.

Freedom to select any school in the UK is theoretically available to all, but transport issues restrict low-income families' ability to exercise this choice. Greater school choice will result in increased school journey length as pupils have wider access to a selection of different schools. However, school choice for children from low-income families, who are much less likely to have access to a car, is severely constrained by practical walking/cycling distances and/or the availability of subsidised public transport. On average these children travel shorter distances to school compared with pupils from more affluent backgrounds. Evidence from Northern Ireland, indicates that if school choice is really to be open to all, school transport must be included as part of the tool kit promoting choice and targeted at those who need it most.

Encouraging children to walk or cycle to school is important, but is only one of a number of contributory strategies to the school transport problem. This is because, in many cases the distances involved make cycling and walking impractical, and in addition many parents are very concerned about their children's safety and would not allow them to walk or cycle.

As well-off parents continue to exercise their right to choose their children's school, and as all parents become increasingly concerned with their children's safety, the numbers involved in the school run will continue to increase. Parents will not stop driving their children to school until they are convinced that there is an alternative, which is cheap, convenient and safe. A dedicated school bus service available to all pupils may provide part of the answer. It would extend choice to all, not just those from affluent backgrounds.

The findings in this paper form part of a larger doctoral programme of research which examines the implications of schooling systems and school transport best practice upon home-to-school transport costs, and the implications of future school policy/planning decisions upon travel patterns and issues of sustainability.

In the next section of the paper, we examine in more detail how school choice can be constrained by inadequate school transport.


In England, the 1988 Education Reform Act created a system of "open enrolment" based on parental preference. Parents were able to apply to any school they liked. They could in theory apply to schools anywhere in the country, with neither distance nor council boundaries any barrier. Schools could only reject applicants if they were physically full. However, there are a number of issues that prevent school choice operating equitably: a lack of capacity within the education system, an admissions system geared towards more affluent pupils and a lack of adequate school transport.

As many of the more popular schools were over subscribed, these schools used an over-subscription criteria to select their pupils. A key criteria used by schools admission boards was distance from school (School catchment areas). This resulted in house prices in catchment areas surrounding successful state schools increasing significantly, in effect introducing social selection to schools. Parents with the means to do so used the new league tables and inspection reports to apply for what they saw as the best schools and, moved house in order to improve their chances of getting in.

In October 2005, the 'Higher Standards, Better Schools for All' White Paper set out a series of reforms designed to raise standards and equity throughout the school system through a combination of greater autonomy for schools, diversity of provision, more innovation, choice & contestability and parental engagement.

Within current UK school admissions policy the affluent could buy choice either by moving house or by going outside the state system. The Government wanted to ensure that choice is more widely available to all and is not restricted to those who can pay for it.

The 2005 White Paper, shifted the emphasis on 'choice' away from school admissions and selection towards the rights (and duties) of parents to access good education for their children, to participate in the educational process and to work in partnership with schools to facilitate 'education tailored to the needs of each child'.

This new policy will result in the scrapping of school catchment areas as ab selection criteria and ensure that there is a random allocation of school places. Parents who could not afford to move beside the school of their choice will now have wider access to successful schools.

However, giving parents a greater choice of school may increase the likelihood of them choosing a school further away. Low-income families with no access to a car may be unable to afford public transport for their child. Therefore even if there were more places and an equitable admissions policy, poor transport would continue to constrain school choice for low-income families.

The 2005 White Paper proposes a specialist school system, where every secondary school that wishes to and meets the required standards will have at least one curriculum specialism. In addition, it is committed to increasing choice and encouraging the participation of faith schools and religious organisations in the state maintained sector. Faith schools are defined as those that educate pupils within the context of a particular faith or denomination and offer compulsory education. One area of the UK where Faith schools are the norm is Northern Ireland. The experience of Northern Ireland offers insights into the financial and social impacts of increased school choice.


The present population of Northern Ireland is almost 1.7 million, the majority of whom are official classified among Protestant denominations, with a Catholic minority which has now risen to over 40%.

Schooling in Northern Ireland is already of a largely segregated nature (Smith, 1999). The system is segregated by religion in that most children attend predominantly Protestant ('controlled') schools or Catholic ('maintained') schools; by ability in that a selection system operates at age 11 to decide which children attend grammar schools (more than one third of children in second level education attend grammar schools); and often by gender (particularly in second level education where a quarter of the secondary schools and almost half of all grammar schools are single sex).

School Transport in Northern Ireland, is the responsibility of the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI), through its Education and Library Boards. In total there are 5 Education and Library Boards within Northern Ireland, each overlooking school transport in a particular geographical area of the country. These board areas are: Belfast; North Eastern; Southern; South Eastern and Western. The Education and library Boards (ELBs) assist with school transport in a variety of ways:

Issuing free passes for public transport

Using their own buses

Hiring private buses or taxis

There are approximately 340,000 school children in Northern Ireland with just under one-third entitled to the provision of home-to-school transport by the Education and Library Board. Of those pupils eligible for free home-to-school transport, 30% use ELB buses, 60% use public transport services and the rest use privately operated buses or taxis.

Since 1997 the provision of free transport has been restricted to the nearest suitable school to a child's home, where walking distance is greater than 2 miles for children aged less than 11 years, and 3 miles for older children. These statutory walking distances are calculated door to door. Children with statements of special need receive free transport. In other parts of the UK the statutory walking distance is 3miles for pupils over 8 years, and 2 miles for younger pupils. It appears that this eligibility criteria supports long distance travel; living more than 3 miles from a school means parents can choose free school transport to any school of their choice, irrespective of distance.


Although the average cost per pupil of providing home to school transport assistance in Northern Ireland is competitive with other parts of the United Kingdom the overall costs of providing school transport are rising at a rate well in excess of inflation and significantly greater than the ability of the Education budget to accommodate such increases. The cost of home-to-school transport in Northern Ireland represents around 5% of the annual education budget, and is in the region of £59 million per year. The combination of selectivity and segregation generates uniquely complex patterns of home to school journeys and one which government has to meet in terms of school transport facilities for so called eligible pupils. The perceived need for different types of school by religion and the survival of selective education and gender segregation, all add to the costly dispersed and segregated nature of schooling in Northern Ireland.

Previous research undertaken by the author examined differences in the profile of school transport provision between Northern Ireland and other areas of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It was hypothesised that by establishing statistical relationships from Scotland and then 'forecasting' eligibility rates for Northern Ireland of the same explanatory variables any differences between the 'forecast' levels and actual eligibility rates for Northern Ireland could be attributed to the pattern of schooling in Northern Ireland and/or the criteria governing provision of free/concessionary school transport.

It was estimated that the segregated and selective nature of the schooling system costs the school transport budget an extra £16 million a year. This is largely due to the fact that the greater choice of school types available in Northern Ireland results in more children being eligible for free home-to-school transport. Eligibility rates of pupils receiving home to school transport assistance in Northern Ireland are much higher than on other areas of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In 2002, 19.7% of all pupils in Scotland and 18% in the Republic of Ireland received education authority funding for transport to school. In Northern Ireland the percentage of total pupils in receipt of transport assistance was 30.1%.

The financial lessons from the Northern Ireland experience are clear warning to increasing school choice and promoting of significant but separate markets reflecting the aspirations of particular regions or ethnic groups.


The segregated and selective nature of the schooling system in Northern Ireland effectively ensures that Northern Ireland has six sizeable sectors to provide for. Because of this it currently offers in theory more scope for parental choice than any other part of the United Kingdom. However, in reality choice is constrained by current free home-to-school transport eligibility criteria. The following research illustrates the difference in school choice faced by pupils in deprived inner city areas compared to the greater choice enjoyed by those pupils from more affluent areas due to the nature of home-to-school transport eligibility criteria in Northern Ireland.

Many low-income families living in urban areas of Northern Ireland are not receiving free home to school transport under current eligibility criteria, while those families living in more affluent suburban areas qualify for free school transport to any school of their choice. There are a number of reasons for this. As was stated previously, to qualify for free school transport a pupil must live beyond a statutory walking distance, i.e. greater than 2 miles for children aged less than 11 years, and 3 miles for older children. The highest levels of deprivation in Northern Ireland are found in the inner urban areas of Belfast and Derry, with the more affluent areas being located on the suburbs of these cities. As inner urban areas have higher population densities than suburban areas, they are more likely to have services such as schools. Therefore, as free school transport eligibility criteria is based on distance, those more affluent pupils living in suburban areas are going to qualify for free home-to-school transport, while those pupils for whom free home-to-school transport is more necessary, receive no funding. In addition, it should be noted that those pupils who live more than 3 miles from a suitable school qualify for free school transport to any school of their choice, irrespective of distance.

Turning now to specific evidence, based on research undertaken in Belfast the capital city of Northern Ireland, the lack of choice faced by children living in deprived areas who successfully complete their 11+ examination, compared to their more affluent counterparts is illustrated.

Figure 1FiFffklfFigure 1 plots the location of all Catholic Grammar schools within the Belfast urban area. In addition it illustrates 2 areas with high rates of Catholic school children, the Whiterock area of inner city West Belfast, ranked as the most deprived area of Northern Ireland and Carryduff an affluent suburb to the South of the city. Carryduff is ranked 853rd out of 890, in terms of its levels of deprivation.

Figure 1. Whiterock and Carryduff areas of Belfast

Figure 1 shows that pupils within the Carryduff live further than 3 miles from any Catholic grammar school. Therefore pupils in this area who wished to attend a Catholic grammar school would be eligible for free school transport to any school of their choice, irrespective of distance. However, pupils living within the Whiterock area, would not qualify for free school transport to any school, as there are 5 schools within a 3 mile radius of this area.

Figure 2 shows the location of all Protestant Grammar schools within the Belfast urban area. Two areas with high rates of Protestant school children, the inner city Shankill area of North Belfast and Templepatrick a suburb to the north of the city, ranked 2nd and 799th respectively in terms of deprivation levels are also located on the map.

Figure 2 Shankill and Templepatrick areas of Belfast

Figure 2 shows that all pupils who live in Templepatrick and wish to attend a Protestant Grammar school are eligible for free school transport to any school of their choice, as there are no schools within a 3 mile radius. However as was the case with pupils from the Whiterock area, those pupils living in the more deprived Shankill area do not qualify for any transport assistance to any school. The maps illustrate the lack of choice faced by deprived children within urban areas of Northern Ireland compared to those children from more affluent backgrounds.

The current system of home to school transport provision tends to fail those who would benefit most from it (e.g. low-income families). One further unintended consequence of current free school transport eligibility criteria is that pupils living in affluent suburbs, more than 3 miles from a school of their choice will receive free school transport to the school of their choice.

In order to improve choice and make the admissions system fairer the Government should extend rights to free school transport to all low-income group pupils, irrespective of distance.

As part of its plans to extend school choice to children from low-income families the UK Government is going to introduce legislation in September 2007 to entitle disadvantaged pupils (eligible for free school meals or in receipt of the maximum level of Working Tax Credit) to free transport to a suitable secondary schools closest to their home, where the school is between two and six miles away.

However based on the evidence of the research undertaken in Northern Ireland, this new legislation would not result in free school transport for those pupils in the deprived Whiterock and Shankill areas, or similar inner city areas across the UK. This is because many inner cities will have a suitable school within a 2 mile radius, and therefore children living in these areas will not receive free home-to-school transport.

As stated earlier in the paper this research forms part of a larger programme of doctoral research. A key to understanding the value for money offered by the current profile of school transport provision, is provided by a review of experience elsewhere. An in depth analysis of US conditions and school transport best practice is to undertaken to inform future developments in policy related to UK school transport with a view to maximising savings while retaining widespread provision of such a facility.


The United States operates the most extensive dedicated school bus system in the world. 23.5 million children are carried on 435,000 buses. The system costs in excess of $15 billion a year and the number of journeys by school buses accumulates to the total of 10 billion student rides a year. In the USA a higher proportion of the school population, around 50%, qualify for free school transport compared to about 30% in Northern Ireland and less than 20% in Britain.

The American Yellow Bus, is a dedicated bus service, available to all pupils who live more than one mile from their nearest suitable school. It is proposed this would extend choice to all pupils, not just those from affluent backgrounds. This could be an answer to the school transport problem in the UK.

According to the US National Safety Council, out of the total number of 800 fatalities on the school run, only 8 were students who had travelled on a school bus. Evidence from the UK show that cars are 15 times safer than cycling or walking, a regular bus is 50 times safer and, based on US experience, a school bus is likely to be well over 100 times safer that walking or cycling.

Buses have a regular driver, who gets to know the children, and may also be accompanied by an escort - often a parent. Children are allocated their own seat. The bus makes frequent stops, allowing all children to be picked up in close proximity to their homes.

In the US, schools have staggered start times. Elementary schools which are for under 10s starts at 9.00am, middle schools (for 11-14) start at 8.15am and high schools (for 15-18) start at 7.30am. This allows school buses 3 runs in the morning and 3 runs in the afternoon. If we could stager school starting times, with primary schools starting at 9.00am and secondary schools at 8.15am, it would make school bussing more attractive by guaranteeing 2 school runs and also help to spread the traffic both in the morning and afternoon.

The main barrier to implementing the Yellow Bus system in the UK would be the cost of the operation. However research already undertaken by the authors examining costs of school transport in the USA and Northern Ireland highlight the low average costs per pupil of school transport in the USA.

Figure 3 confirms that the USA indeed has lower average costs per pupil transported, than in the UK and in particular Northern Ireland.

Figure 3 Average Expenditure per Pupil Transported at Public Expense in USA and Northern Ireland

More research into school transport practices in the USA along with a series of pilot schemes will be required before the yellow bus can be held up as a solution to UK school transport problems. In spite of highly segregated and low density residential patterns, the US is able to achieve lower average costs of provision per pupil for home to school transport assistance than is the case in the UK. The factors for this may include the widespread use of staggered school hours, thereby increasing utilisation of school bus fleets, and/or differences in working conditions or other unit operating costs in the USA compared to the UK. Further investigation of these differences would help to inform the potential for increasing cost effectiveness in school transport delivery in the UK.


This paper shows that low-income families in Northern Ireland have little or no choice when it comes to deciding the grammar school for their children due to current home to school transport eligibility criteria being applied there. Low-income parents are not able to choose schools further away, even if they are more academically successful, because they have no means of independent transport to get there and cannot afford the cost of public transport. Furthermore, those pupils living in affluent suburbs more than 3 miles from a suitable school, receive free transport to the school of their choice irrespective of distance. It is evident that policies aimed at promoting school choice are not successful, if the admissions system does not take into account all the factors that influence school choice. Indeed increasing school choice may fail those pupils it is meant to help the most.

The financial lessons from the Northern Ireland experience are clear warning to increasing school choice and promoting of significant but separate markets reflecting the aspirations of particular regions or ethnic groups.

The research indicates that the implications of greater parental choice for sustainability and transport initiatives could be significant. Parents will not stop driving their children to school until they are convinced that there is a solution, which is cheap, convenient and safe. A dedicated school bus service available to all pupils, based on the American Yellow Bus, may be the answer.