The problem with learner travel

Imagine a daily commute. It starts early, and at this time of year the sun has barely risen over the horizon. Some pavements and paths are lit by streetlights; some aren’t. It’s a journey of several miles, and involves a change of public buses in a busy urban area. You might well have a similar commute every day yourself. But this isn’t an adult commuting to work. It’s an 11-year-old child, commuting to school.

Now imagine you’re a 14-year-old secondary school pupil. You’re already struggling with your attendance. You live in a household that is struggling to make ends meet. You can’t afford public transport and your parents can’t take you to school, which is just under 3 miles away. Current Government guidance for local authorities says that you’ll need to walk up to six miles a day to get to school and back home.

It’s common for my Investigation and Advice team to hear a range of concerns from across Wales on this issue. We’ve heard of children in rural areas waiting on their own, standing on a grass verge with no street lighting waiting for their ride to school. Others might be walking paths or areas which they feel are unsafe and unsuitable. It’s all part of a bigger picture in Wales that involves inconsistent experiences and journeys to school that aren’t always suitable.

In Wales, the Learner Travel Measure (2008) sets out what local authorities must do in order to make sure children and young people in their areas get to school safely. It states that local authorities must provide free home-to-school transport for primary school children living more than two miles away from their nearest suitable school; for secondary school pupils it’s three miles. Authorities must risk-assess walk-to-school routes, taking a wide range of circumstances into consideration when deciding whether a route is suitable or not.

I have some major concerns about the current system.

First of all, there is a serious loophole in local authorities’ duty to risk assess routes. Risk assessments are a legal requirement for active travel routes children use to walk directly to school, but not for journeys children have to make from their home to a pick-up point to catch a school bus. For this scenario, the guidance doesn’t set out any responsibilities for ensuring their safety, leading to concerns and unsatisfactory arrangements across the country.

Some children live a significant distance from their pick-up point. What about those who don’t have access to a car? What about parents whose working hours don’t allow them to accompany their child on a daily walk?  A family contacting my Advice team were concerned that their child was expected to travel the 1.4 miles from their home to a pick-up point on a route that wasn’t risk assessed. That’s almost 3 miles a day on a route that the council doesn’t know is safe.

My office has consistently and repeatedly called for changes to the law around learner travel. It’s not just about the safety and distance of some active travel routes, it’s also about access to free transport for post-16 education, how well the current regulations provide for children with Additional Learning Needs, and how effectively the rules support critical current issues like school attendance.

Almost a third of Welsh children live in poverty, and Wales has a significant issue with school attendance rates, which are worse for children from the lowest income households. Estyn’s very recently published report ‘Improving Attendance in Secondary Schools’ highlighted that changing learner travel rules could play a key role in boosting attendance of pupils from low-income households.

There’s an issue too for learners in post-16 education. There’s no legal duty to provide transport for young people who aren’t of compulsory school age. If you take a young person choosing to study in their school’s sixth form for example, they could go from having free transport up until their GCSEs to suddenly having to pay for public transport to keep going with their education, or to attend the Further Education provision of their choice. Again, a third of young people live in poverty in Wales, and it’s those young people who’ll suffer if they’re suddenly faced with paying for daily bus and train tickets.

And you’d be forgiven for assuming that young people with additional learning needs are guaranteed free school transport. They aren’t. Despite often having specific vulnerabilities that might make it difficult or stressful for them to walk to school or to get a public bus. All young people have a right to reach their potential, and our school transport system needs to fully support that.

Put simply, the picture across Wales is inconsistent and outdated, and above all else, doesn’t support children and young people well enough to access their education and reach their full potential.

Three years ago the Welsh Government published an interim review of the current 2008 legislation. It acknowledged an array of issues all too familiar to my office, many pointing to inconsistent provision across Wales and inconsistent experiences for children. They said that ministers were committed to reviewing learner travel, noting that “the option of ‘do nothing’ is not considered appropriate” and concluded that the interim work “justifies a comprehensive review of the Measure”, to prevent “further inequality, inconsistency in provision and further outdated codes and guidances”. 

But, in 2024,  the inequalities and inconsistencies that have been so apparent in children and young people’s travel experiences for so long are still very much with us.