New analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN) show that the average costs for home to school transport was £93 per rural child in 2017 compared to £10 in cities and towns.
County leaders warn they will have to continue reducing services – with thousands of pupils no longer receiving school transport – unless government recognises this “rural premium”.
Local authorities have called for a ‘fair deal’ for rural areas.
This is due to the higher numbers of pupils who are eligible for free transport in rural areas compared to urban ones, exacerbated by housing growth.
There are also higher costs to transport pupils in rural areas due to longer distances travelled and availability of routes, says the CCN.
The figures are analysed from government data which measures total expenditure each council spends yearly on home to school transport divided by the total number of pupils in that area.
These higher costs and wider budget cuts that have disproportionally hit rural areas, mean county councils reduced school transport services to reduce overall expenditure.
This means they have had to introduce charges, reduce transport, and tighten eligibility.
In total, some 29 out of 36 county councils reduced their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017.
Data from 20 of those councils shows that thousands of pupils no longer receive home to school transport and have to find other means of getting to school, or pay charges
Between 2014 and 2017, services were scaled back meaning that 22,352 pupils less in 2017 were receiving home to school transport services compared to three years previously.
In every region in England, county councils are the ones that are paying significantly more per-head than metropolitan and city councils, says the CCN.
County leaders say that the way councils are currently funded does not adequately account for these the higher proportion of eligible pupils in county areas.
The problem is exacerbated by dramatic reductions in rural bus routes, they claim.
Pupils under the age of eight can get free school transport if they live over two miles away from their nearest school. The same goes for pupils over 8 if they live three miles away.
By the end of the decade, the CCN says county councils will receive £161 of core funding per head compared to an England average of £266 and £459 in London.
School transport is largely funded by these government grants.
CCN spokesman for education and children’s services Ian Hudspeth said there was clear evidence that the situation was serious.
“There are significant extra costs in delivering school transport services in rural county areas, with rurality a key issue exacerbated by a reduction in bus routes, and an increase in housing numbers.
“We pay a rural premium in delivering these transport services, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies.
Regrettably, we have had little choice to cut back on free transport services for thousands of rural pupils, and tighten eligibility.
Providing free transport to our schools was a much-valued service, said Mr Hudspeth, yet it was one councils could scarcely afford beyond their statutory duties.
“We will continue to work with ministers to ensure that the new formula funds councils in based on what they genuinely need to provide vital local services such as school transport.”
The government is currently consulting on a new method of funding councils from 2020. It is suggested that rurality will form a big part of a new funding formula.
Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.