Savings worth £26 million a year could be achieved if children in Northern Ireland were transported to the nearest school only, a review said.
More than 144 million miles a year are added to peak hour travel because some colleges, particularly grammars, bus pupils in from surrounding areas, according to a leading transport consultant brought in to advise the education minister.
The report recommended that money saved by sending children to the nearest school could be used to reduce the distance they had to walk before qualifying for free transport, enhance provision of after-school buses and target support for the vulnerable.
It said: “The current system of school transport is inconsistent between (Education and Library) Board areas and school sectors and results in some schools benefiting from generous levels of service and entitlement.
“Its complexity leads to a highly contested and litigious environment.”
The document said the system undermined the concept of local schools and added more than 144 million miles a year to peak hour travel across Northern Ireland and an estimated £30 million to the school transport bill.
Almost 60% of Catholic grammar pupils qualify for transport assistance.
Education Minister John O’Dowd published the independent review of home to school transport chaired by transport consultant Dr Sian Thornthwaite.
The report recommended the state should continue to assume some responsibility for home to school transport, but only to the nearest school to the child’s home.
Redistribution of the savings would address inconsistencies resulting from the diverse categorisation of schools and inequities in the current system of transport, the report said.
Any change should be introduced on a phased basis applying to new school admissions only, supported by improved and consistent information for parents and schools on respective responsibilities, the rationale for change, the process, and transport options, including public transport and sustainable travel.
At present if the nearest school is more than two miles (primary) or three miles (secondary) from home, pupils can choose to attend any school in that category over the distance, supported by state transport. There is no maximum distance.
This means less than a quarter of post-primary school pupils attend their nearest school. Only 12% of grammar school pupils do.
The report noted: “Journeys are, therefore, long. Post-primary school journeys are on average nearly three miles longer than those in the rest of the UK.
“Journeys to grammar schools are, on average, more than six miles each way.”
The estimated cost to the Department of Education of supporting pupils’ journey to school is predicted to exceed £100 million by 2019/20 (including support from other government departments for school travel the total is expected to rise to approximately £133 million).
Other jurisdictions’ home to school transport policies support relatively limited choice. Northern Ireland is unusual in the extensive school choice supported, the complexity of its school transport system and consequently high levels of entitlement and expenditure, Dr Thornthwaite added.
Mr O’Dowd said: “I want to ensure that we are delivering the optimum service possible in all aspects of education here so that there is equality of opportunity and access for all our young people and every child is enabled to achieve to their full potential.”