Not a transport of delight

As a teenager 50 years ago I used to listen to the BBC’s Round Britain Quiz and puzzle over the cryptic questions set for the teams. So I thought that I would set one of my own for this blog. What links together the representation of Downton Abbey, the RAF, and a school established over 600 years ago? And how might the Prime Minster have needed to keep an eye on the outcome?

Anyone who sat through the Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon will have had no difficulty answering the question set above. But, for everyone else, I have added an explanation at the end of this piece.

Home to school transport has always proved a contentious issue in time of government spending cuts, as the rules, although seemingly simple, are often challenging to enforce fairly. Basically, the principle established many years ago is that children under eight don’t have any access to free transport if the distance to school is less than two miles unless the route is unsafe. For those between the ages of 8 and 16 the distance increases to three miles by a safe route. Changes to existing policy can have significant implications for those who live in rural counties such as Oxfordshire. Since the passing of the 1980 Education Act the issue of parental choice, and the ‘duty’ of authorities to do their best to meet parental preferences, has caused significant issues as it has made the status of ‘catchment areas’ or ‘designated schools’ much less rigid in meaning. Additionally, local authorities are still charged to do nothing that is ‘prejudicial to the efficient use of resources’.

After the county elections this May, Oxfordshire County Council embarked on a consultation to change their present travel arrangements. The consequence of that process came to a head at the cabinet meeting yesterday where the decision was taken to start the whole process again in the autumn after the level of opposition from schools, parents, and the community proved overwhelming. The actual reason given was that the DfE, who had placed new ‘guidance’ on their web site in March – and thus triggered the local review and consultation, had announced a –U- turn and dumped the March guidance and returned to the status quo ante by restoring the 2007 guidance. Interestingly, nobody challenged whether the 2007 guidance affected the consultation in any way, but I suspect that there was great relief among the ruling Conservative and Independent Alliance Group or CIA that currently governs Oxfordshire.

Much of the challenge to the consultation is centred on a small number of schools, many within the Prime Minister’s own constituency, where one secondary school was in favour and another against the changes. There are certainly anomalies that have grown up over the years across the county, and it will be interesting to see whether the new consultation goes back to first principles or tries to bury the problem.

Looming in the background is the issue of how the County deals with free schools, academies, studio schools and UTCs. I am reminded that the 2007 Guidance said:

The Secretary of State expects that local authorities may wish to exercise this discretionary power to ensure that pupils whose parents had expressed a preference for a vocational education at a 14-19 vocational academy were not denied the opportunity to do so by the lack of, or the cost of transport arrangements to such a school. Local authorities should use this power to facilitate attendance at a vocational academy where the school’s catchment area included all, or part of the local authority’s area. Where such pupils were from low income backgrounds, then such arrangements should be free of charge.

This part of the guidance has implications for the cost of transport to the new UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury, and may cause other schools to ponder whether it might affect their post 14 numbers if free transport was offered.

Perhaps, with the raising of the statutory learning age to 18, it is time for central government to review the whole set of principles behind home to school transport in an age of parental and even student choice. What worked in the uncomplicated state school system of the Nineteenth Century may not be appropriate for the Twenty First. Perhaps, travelling costs could be free for all, as in London, or be added to tax credits of Child Benefit? There is certainly, time for a wider debate than just what happens in Oxfordshire.

The answer to the question set above. Bampton features as the village in the TV series Downton Abbey. Many families from the RAF at Brize Norton send their children to secondary school in either Carterton or Burford. The secondary school in Burford traces its history back many centuries. All these towns are in the Prime minister’s Witney constituency. And the school bus from Bampton effectively goes past Carterton Secondary School on its way to Burford School. The former is an 11-16 school; the latter an 11-18 school. One or other might be affected depending on whether Oxfordshire changes the rules or not.

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