Controversial plans to end subsidised school transport in East Ayrshire are set to be tested with a three week pilot scheme before the end of the school year.

East Ayrshire is the only one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to provide subsidised fares for pupils who don’t meet the free transport criteria.

Councillors considered a report on removing the scheme last year, but subsequently opted to postpone a decision until more work was carried out to assess active travel and public transport links.

The last full year of operation saw the council pay out £462,000, equating to around £750 for each of the 617 pupils.

At the time, officers said that the cost per head was likely to increase, with the numbers using the service expected to drop to around 560, attributing the drop to the increased use of free bus travel for young people.

However, councillors will hear that 646 pupils are using the service in 2023/24, with the cost to the council rising to £641,000.

This is a major factor in a £440,000 overspend in 2022/23, and is expected to rise to £523,000 this year.

A report to Wednesday’s cabinet states: “Over the intervening years, with changes to school catchment areas, new house building, increases in those entitled to free school meals, significant inflationary pressures and improved vehicle standards the cost to the council has significantly increased.

“In the current school year, 2023/24, 2,534 pupils are in receipt of free school transport, with 646 pupils accessing subsidised transport.

As of January 2024, the council was £523,000 over budget and officials estimating that the cost to the council, taking into account income, would be £641,000.

Officers have now reviewed the current walking routes to secondary schools and have proposed upgrades to some of them.

  • St Joseph’s Academy, from Caprington,Bellfield and Crookedholm
  • St Joseph’s Academy, from North Kilmarnock
  •  Grange Academy from South of Kilmarnock
  • Grange Campus, from Gargieston
  •  Grange Campus from North West Kilmarnock
  • William McIlvanney Campus, from North Kilmarnock
  • Barony Campus, from Lugar and Logan, Craigens and Netherthird and East Cumnock
  • Barony Campus from Auchinleck and Holmhead

Stagecoach has also agreed to a pilot to address the lack of direct buses from North Kilmarnock to St. Joseph’s and Kilmarnock academies.

This will see a direct route from North Kilmarnock to New Farm Loch which the council says would eliminate the need for young people to transfer at Kilmarnock Bus Station.

This service would run throughout the pilot scheme from Monday, May 27 to Friday, June 14.

Parents and carers who have paid for subsidised school transport places will be receive a credit of £18.33 for the three week period of the pilot.

A short consultation took place with pupils, carers and parents last month. The vast majority (204 out of 259 responses) were from parents and pupils at Kilmarnock Academy and St Joseph’s Academy.

More than 50 responses were received in relation to Robert Burns Academy, with just four responses in relation to Grange Academy.

The report states: “Across all school areas comments received in relation to active travel focused predominantly on safety concerns, street lighting, weather conditions, time and distance, impact on traffic and climate change.

“The proposed introduction of a direct bus from North Kilmarnock was largely welcomed, noting that this would help to alleviate many concerns.

“However, those responding were keen to receive more information in relation to matters such as timings, frequency, capacity, location of bus stops, reliability and whether the route would be sustained longer term.”

The pilot will ‘provide an indication of which alternatives pupils will use and will inform further engagement’.

The cabinet will consider the report on Wednesday, March 13.