Bad deal for rural students

The fact that student living in London are provided with free travel to school or college by Transport for London has always been great for them, but I felt unfair on those living in the rest of the country. Free travel is also a great help to the family budget. This benefit to London sort of mirrors the complaints of the f40 group about how schools are funded across England.

The announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport on the 2nd January 2019 of a new railcard for 16 and 17 year olds just adds insult to injury for many young people living in rural areas. The new railcard isn’t an initiative from the rail industry. The department of Transport press release is very clear that the 26-30 year olds railcard is an industry initiative backed by the government, but that the card for 16 and 17 year olds is a government initiative and, therefore, can be seen as a political move.

Indeed, the press notice points out that the new card for 16 and 17 year olds includes half price for peak and season tickets, something not generally available on other railcards.

To rub salt in the wounds, the press notice goes on to announce that the ‘railcard could cut the cost of travel by hundreds of pounds a year for young people and their parents [sic], making it cheaper to get to school, college and work’. All very well if you live near a railway line.

At Oxfordshire’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, I asked a question about how the card would affect those not living near a railway line? For many, once the card comes into operation and the £30 purchase fee has been discounted, rail travel will be half the price of a similar bus journey, even assuming there is a bus after the rounds of cuts to such services.

The withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year olds in England by the Coalition and the refusal to change the rules on home to school transport after the raising of the learning leaving age, was an unfair allocation of resources that penalised students not able to walk or cycle to school or college.

Doing something for those that have a handy railway, but ignoring everyone else in rural areas, is an own goal for the government that may well feature in campaigning for the district council elections this May in the worst affected areas.

In Oxfordshire the 16-17 year olds in Wantage could well be paying twice the price of their college buddies that live in Didcot in order to attend classes, because the County has never progressed the re-opening of Grove Station that has been an aspiration for more than 20 years.

Similarly, those 16 and 17 year old student living in Charlbury will benefit if travelling to college in Oxford, but those living in Chipping Norton or Burford won’t when travelling to Witney.

Time for a rethink Mr Grayling.

 

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A cost to rural living

As a Lib Dem county councillor in Oxfordshire I was interested to read the comments of the County Councils Network spokesman for education and children’s services, about the under-funding of rural counties in relation to home to school transport. Incidentally he is also Conservative Group leader on the Oxfordshire County Council that implemented changes to transport arrangements some years ago for most pupils and has recently consulted on changes to home to school transport for pupils with special educational needs where the transport is not included in their Education and Health Care plan.

Over the past few years, I have continually pointed out in the Council Chamber that parents living in London don’t have to worry about the cost of home to school transport because TfL offers largely free travel to young people living in the capital. We now know something of the cost to local authorities of home to school transport, even after they have transferred as much of the possible costs to parents by retaining only their statutory legal services in regard to the nearest school and in most cases no longer paying for travel to the school of choice. I commented in an earlier post about the effect such a change could have in local authorities in July 2013 with a post entitled ‘Not a transport of delight’ and in October 2016 about transport to selective schools and secondary modern schools located next to each other in a post entitled ‘Tories and Grammar Schools’.

The County Council Network noted today that 29 out of 36 county councils had reduced their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017. I expect the other seven will probably be forced to do so in the future. 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.

The data shows some large regional variations in the costs of subsidised school transport, with home to school transport in highly rural North Yorkshire costing £207 per head, significantly more than in such Yorshire urban areas as Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30), and Wakefield (£23); Hampshire’s per head average of £62 is much more than in Portsmouth (£6), Southampton (£12), and Reading (£23). In every region in England, county councils are the ones that are paying significantly more per-head than metropolitan and city councils.

Even more iniquitous, yet not mentioned by the County Council Network press notice, was the fact that when the learning leaving age was raised to eighteen from sixteen the right to free travel wasn’t also altered. I don’t know whether it was an oversight or a piece of mean penny pinching on the part of government, but it is not fair on those living in rural areas, especially where the local school only goes up to the age of sixteen. If the local bus service has been axed as well, then the cost may be significant to families. I know that there is provision for a hardship grant that replaced the Education Maintenance Allowance abolished by the Coalition, but its existence is neither well known nor understood.

With rural primary schools under threat due to budget pressures, home to school transport is an issue that may force its way up the agenda over the coming months.