End of free rides in sight for far-travelled pupils?

A COUNCIL committee has approved plans to cut free public transport for senior secondary pupils attending schools outside their catchment area.

The decision, taken after a lengthy debate at the education and families committee on Tuesday, is intended to save money and preserve local junior high schools, whose rolls could be undermined by pupil drift to the new Anderson High School.

According to a report by schools executive manager Shona Thompson the number of “placing requests” for the AHS has risen from 20 to 28 over the last three years. A further 69 are being considered for next year, mainly from the South End and West Side.

There are other pupils attending Aith Junior High and Brae High from outwith those schools’ catchment areas.

The report says that “transport costs have increased by some £83,000 per annum” since a 2016 decision to offer free transport to S4 and above pupils schooling outside their nominated area.

Officials told the committee that an amendment to keep the free transport policy for pupils studying subjects not in their local junior high’s curriculum was “opening a can of worms”.

Pupils could theoretically be entitled to free transport by taxi from Sandwick to Brae, or any other route not served by school or public transport.

Committee chairman George Smith said that more and more people were placing children at the AHS, which was an additional cost the “council can ill-afford to bear.”

There was a dilemma, he said, between offering pupils flexibility of choice and maintaining the schools estate across the isles.

The committee approved the report and voted down councillor Peter Campbell’s amendment by 11 to 2. Another amendment tabled by councillor John Fraser failed to receive a backer.

The committee rejected an official proposal that it consider charging for spare seats on school busses as monitoring such a scheme was apt to cost more than it would raise.

The report still has to be passed by the environment and transport committee, policy and resources committee and full Shetland Islands Council on 27 June, before becoming policy.