Rumours about what might be in the budget regarding education are rife across the media today. We know of more money for T levels in further education but, more grammar school places are also being touted as a likely outcome.
One particularly pernicious suggestion that I have heard mention is that the Chancellor will announce that the rules on home to school transport will be altered. At present, outside the TfL area in London, where transport is free, most pupils only receive free transport if their nearest school with a place is over two miles for children up to eight and three miles for children over eight and up to sixteen. There are exceptions where the route is unsafe and for children whose parents are on certain benefits. The latter normally have a wider range of schools to select from where free travel is available.
The rumour suggests that this provision will be extended to allow all pupils free travel to a selective school up to fifteen miles away from their home. Now, one would have assumed that was the case anyway in selective authorities, but at least one such authority tried to create a ‘nearest school’ policy regardless of whether it was a grammar or a secondary modern, condemning some parents to pay to take up places at grammar schools. Preventing this anomaly seems sensible. Less sensible is applying the rule to any child within say 15 miles offered a place and forcing non-selective local authorities to pay for the transport cost even if it means a taxi at £5,000 per place per year.
More sensible would be for the Chancellor to take a look at the transport rules for post-16 pupils. There is no statutory requirement to provide free transport for this age group despite the raising of the learning leaving age to eighteen. The cost is most keenly felt by parents in Tory controlled rural areas, many of which are fully non-selective. Here there is often little choice except between a single secondary school and a distant further education college offering very different ranges of courses. In some areas, with sixth form or tertiary colleges, there is no choice if a child wants to remain in education. For pupils with special needs the distance can be even greater to attend specialist provision.
In my view, if the Chancellor is trying to do more than clear up the anomaly created by some Tory authorities trying to save money, he should support free transport for all 16-19 pupils on the same basis as for pupils from 8-16 ahead of favouring younger children attending selective schools.
Of course, he could go further and offer the same deal to all pupils across the country as pupils receive in London, free transport to all children regardless of distance travelled within the TfL area, but that would really cause chaos, even if it boosted parental choice. Not much chance of that then.