Most children make their own way to school, accompanied by their parents or independently if they are older. For some disabled children this may not be possible, either because their school is too far away or because they are not able to walk or use public transport in the same way as other children.
Local authorities must make free travel arrangements for these children.
The guidance below applies to children of compulsory school age (5-16) in England. Read more about school transport for young people over 16 in England.
In this article
Local authority duties in brief
Local authorities must make travel arrangements where necessary to enable eligible children to attend school. These arrangements must be provided free of charge. Local authorities also have discretion to provide transport for a wider group of children – this could be free or charged for.
References to children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans also apply to those who still have statements under the old system.
To be entitled to free school transport, your child must attend a ‘qualifying school’. These are:
- State maintained schools.
- Academies, free schools and pupil referral units.
- An independent school named in section I of your child’s EHC plan. You can’t get school transport if your child does not have an EHC plan and is placed at an independent school at your own expense.
Who is eligible?
Some eligibility criteria apply to all children, and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) may qualify for transport under these. Other eligibility criteria apply only to children with a disability, special educational need or mobility difficulty.
This applies if your child lives more than the statutory walking distance from their nearest suitable school. Statutory walking distance is defined as two miles for under-eights and three miles for age eight and over. The distance measured is the shortest route along which a child can walk in reasonable safety. This may not be the same as the driving route and may include footpaths.
Unsuitable walking route
This applies if your child lives within the two or three-mile limit, but there is no safe walking route to school. For example, if the only route to school is along an unlit busy road with no pavement.
Children with a SEN, disability or mobility difficulty
If your child cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school because of a special educational need, disability or mobility problem, they will be entitled to free school transport regardless of the distance they live from the school. An assessment must be made on the child’s individual needs.
This criterion applies to all children with SEND or mobility difficulties, not just children with EHC plans or who attend special schools.
Some children may be unable to walk to school because of a physical disability or medical issue. Others may have psychological or behavioural issues that put them at risk.
Local authorities should consider whether a child is able to make the journey on foot. If the child needs an adult with them to make the journey safe, the local authority should also consider if it’s reasonable to expect a parent to do this. Walking to school may not be possible for a disabled parent. Age should also be taken into account: it may be reasonable to expect a parent to walk a six-year-old to school, but not a 15-year-old.
Your ability to drive your child to school must not be considered, even if your child receives the mobility element of Disability Living Allowance, or you have a motability car.
Families on a low income
If your family is on a low income, the distance criteria are more generous by lowering the statutory walking distance for over eights and extending the range of schools.
You will meet the criteria for low income if your child is eligible for free school meals or you are on the maximum amount of working tax credit or equivalent under Universal Credit.
Your child will then be eligible for free travel if they are:
- Age eight-10 living over two miles from the nearest suitable school.
- Age 11-16 living within two and six miles of school if it is one of the three nearest suitable schools.
- Age 11-16 living between two and 15 miles of the nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion or belief.
Children in pupil referral units
If your child is on roll at a mainstream school but has been placed temporarily in a pupil referral unit, they can get school transport if they meet the eligibility criteria, even if they don’t qualify for their usual school.
Most children now start school in the September after their fourth birthday. There is no duty to provide transport until children reach compulsory school age – the term after they turn five.
Your local authority may provide transport for four-year-olds in reception class if they will be eligible when they are five. If you are turned down, it may be possible to challenge a decision on equality grounds if your four-year-old has to attend a school at some distance from home, rather than their local mainstream school.
School preference for children with EHC Plans
If your child has an EHC plan, you have the right to have your preferred school named in section I if it meets specific criteria, including suitability and efficient use of resources.
If the EHC plan names your preferred school with no conditions and it is the only school named, then it automatically counts as the closest suitable for transport purposes. The local authority must provide free school transport if your child is eligible.
Sometimes the local authority may consider that another school nearer to home is also able to meet your child’s needs and that the additional transport to your preferred school costs too much. The local authority may then either:
- Name the further school as parental preference but state in the EHC plan that there is a closer suitable school and so the parent will be responsible for school transport.
- Name the closer school only.
If you are not happy about the named school, you can appeal to the SEND tribunal.
School Transport options
The duty on the local authority is to make suitable ‘travel arrangements’, which may not be door-to-door transport. Depending on the needs of your child, you might be offered:
- A bus pass for use on public transport.
- Travel training to enable an older child to walk or take public transport on their own.
- A place on a dedicated school bus.
- A shared taxi or minibus.
- An individual taxi with or without an escort.
or, with your consent only:
- A mileage allowance or personal transport budget.
- A walking escort.
Some families like the flexibility of a personal transport budget to make their own arrangements. The local authority cannot insist on this, even if you have a Motability car or your child gets higher rate mobility of Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
Suitable school transport
The local authority has a duty to provide suitable transport that is “non-stressful”. The courts have defined this as transport that enables a child “to reach school without undue stress, strain or difficulty such as would prevent him from benefiting from the education the school has to offer, […] [and] to travel in safety and in reasonable comfort”.
A bus pass and a programme of travel training may, for example, be appropriate for a young adult with moderate learning difficulties. But it might be highly unsuitable for an 11 year old with severe autism and sensory sensitivities, who may need door-to-door transport with an escort. Children with physical disabilities may need specialist seating or a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
Statutory guidance recommends maximum journey times of 45 minutes for primary-aged children and 75 minutes for secondary.
Some parents report that staff on school transport are caring and a full part of their child’s education team. In other cases, drivers and escorts may be unaware of children’s difficulties and poorly trained to handle their behaviour. Guidance is clear that all staff should have up-to-date training, including:
- An awareness of different types of disability including “hidden” disabilities.
- An awareness of what might be discrimination.
- Skills to communicate with children with different disabilities and to manage behaviour.
Local authorities must also ensure that the necessary safeguarding checks are carried out.
Applying for school transport
You will probably need to apply formally for school transport to your local authority. Some local authorities require parents to reapply annually or at major transition points, such as moving to secondary school. Information on how to apply should be on the local authority’s website and “local offer” site.
You should include as much information as you can with your application. It’s important to show that your child meets the legal eligibility criteria. If you are applying under the SEND criterion, explain in detail:
- Why your child is not able to walk to school. Give both physical reasons and any need for close supervision.
- The actual journey on foot and how your child would be affected.
- If you have professional evidence of your child’s walking ability or the difficulties they have in public places, include that too.
You may be unhappy with a local authority decision on school transport, either because they have decided your child is not eligible or you think that the transport offered is not suitable. Your local authority should have a complaints and appeals procedure for transport decisions. This should be published alongside the transport policy.
Statutory guidance recommends a two- stage procedure involving an initial review by a senior officer followed by an independent appeal panel. However, there is no legal requirement to follow this particular procedure.
If you are not happy with the outcome of the local appeal process, you may be able to take matters further to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO). You can do this if you think the local authority did not follow proper procedure in the appeal or that the decision was not in keeping with the law. The LGO has issued a focus report on school transport (see Find out More section), which gives examples of some cases they have dealt with.
It may be possible to take legal action against the local authority via the judicial review process. It is important to get independent legal advice before taking this step. You can read our factsheet Challenging school tranport decisions [PDF] to find out more.
If there is a dispute over the closest suitable school and the local authority has put more than one school in section I of the EHC plan or a note to say that parents will be responsible for school transport, you can appeal to the SEND tribunal to have your preference named as the only school.
Also see our page on school transport consultations. This will be useful to parent carer forums and groups and individual parents who want to challenge a local school transport policy. It will help you understand:
- Local authorities’ duties with regard to transport policies.
- The need for a fair consultation.
- Common issues on which a policy could be challenged.
Find out more
- Statutory guidance from the Department for Education – Home to School travel and transport guidance
- Your local authority’s local offer site should have information on travel assistance and a link to the full school transport policy.
Local Government Ombudsman:
- Transport complaints http://www.lgo.org.uk/make-a-complaint/fact-sheets/education/school-transport
- Focus report on school transport http://www.lgo.org.uk/information-centre/reports/focus-reports
Factsheet: Home to school transport – EnglandDownload now
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Download our factsheet Home to school transport [PDF].
Download our factsheet Challenging school tranport decisions [PDF].
Our helpline advisers can explain your rights to school transport and tell you how you can challenge decisions you’re not happy with. Call our helpline on 0808 808 3555