East Ayrshire Council could seek compromise on the thorny issue of subsidised school transport this week.

The authority is the only one in Scotland to provide subsidised bus runs for pupils who don’t meet the free transport criteria.

However, it is a particularly costly scheme which came in at £462,000 for 2022/23, equating to around £750 for each of the 617 pupils, not taking into account those recieving additional discounts, who utilised it last year.

That is around 12 per cent of the total spent on school transport.

The cost per pupil is expected to increase, with the number of pupils expected to use the service in 2023/24 expected to fall by around nine per cent.

It also accounts for the £440,000 the council overspent on its £3.6m school transport budget in 2022/23.

Most other authorities, including neighbouring North and South Ayrshire, have a clear delineation when it comes to free school transport based on distance from schools.

If they are within a certain walking distance from the school, pupils will not be eligible for free bus transport, providing there is a safe walking route.

Those who are further away do get free transport, no matter their means.

In 2012, East Ayrshire Council attempted to make the drop between those who are and are not eligible for free transport less steep.

It agreed to free transport for every pupil at primary school who lives more than 1.5 miles from the school and for every secondary school pupils who lives more than three miles away – a policy more generous than the national guidance.

At other authorities, those not eligible for free transport are left to find their way to school, whether by getting a lift, getting a public bus, going by bike or walking.

EAC instead decided to allow secondary school pupils living between 1.5 and three miles from school take up the option of a discounted fare on a specially contracted bus service.

Pupils who are eligible for free school meals get their travel free of charge. But, unlike everywhere else in Scotland, families could opt in to a subsidised scheme, where they would pay £267 a year for one pupil to get transport.

The burden was further reduced, with a second child from a family getting a 50 percent discount and a third (and more) getting a full 100 percent discount.

While the council had originally believed the system would break even through income from families and the sale of unallocated (privilege) seats on the buses, this has not been the case.

The school transport budget has increased by over £500,000 over the last eight years, while the actual amount spent has risen by around £1million.

Last year, the overspend was £440,000 compared to a spend on the subsidised transport scheme of £462,000.

The introduction of free bus passes for young people under 22 was seen as a game changer, providing an opportunity to bring the council into line with the rest of Scotland while offering an alternative that would cost parents less.

The use of bus passes also inadvertently increases the pressure on the school transport budget.

While a number of families have indicated they would be cancelling their use of the subsidised scheme, the council would potentially still have to provide the same number of buses – increasing the cost of travel per pupil.

The council said that all of the communities receiving subsidised transport have  local buses services within "reasonable walking distance".

It has also vowed to ensure there are safe routes for cycling and walking to schools, and claim that the plans would fit with the wider push for active travel.

However, following concerns, options have been brought to the table that would see a more gradual transition that would result in pupils who are currently using the subsidised bus scheme to continue to do so.

This would result in an end to new applications to the scheme from the coming school year on.

This would, in effect, phase out the scheme over a five year period, when the last of the pupils currently using it would leave school.

The council would also contact parents about the financial implications of the scheme, the introduction of the national bus pass and the move towards active travel.

The original option will also be considered.

This option, the report states, would “keep the non-statutory subsidised transport service as it currently is for the academic year 2023/24 and remove completely by July 2024, allowing Parents and pupils to transition over this period and embrace safe active travel routes.”

The cabinet will consider the report on Wednesday, July 26.