Don’t forget rural areas

When Chris Grayling was the Secretary of State for Transport he announced a new rail saver card for 16-17 year olds. From September, this group will now have access to some of the cheapest peak time rail fares, not only to travel to and from college and school, but also for leisure use.

The DfT, now under new leadership, recently issued a press notice about the new card https://www.gov.uk/government/news/over-one-million-people-to-save-hundreds-as-new-16-17-saver-launches-cutting-cost-of-rail-travel-for-teenagers There must be questions about the claim of the number of young people that will benefit, especially in the absence of any indication that you don’t need to buy the card if you live in London and just travel to and from school or college. This is thanks to TfL arrangements that have increasingly taken many suburban rail lines into the overground network. The annual saving of an estimated £186 is good news for those that use the train, but not for all young people.

My concern has always been that this initiative does nothing for young people living in rural areas some distance away from rail lines and that cannot sue them to access school or college places. In Oxfordshire, Witney, Burford, Wantage, Farringdon, Chipping Norton, Watlington and Wheatley, along with a host of other towns and villages, don’t have direct access to a railway station. Why hasn’t the government done a similar deal with the privatised bus companies to help these young people?

Alternatively, having raised the learning leaving age to 18, why hasn’t the DfE responded to this initiative by looking to change the home to school transport regulations so the upper age limit for free travel is 18 and not 16. This would come at a price to public finances, and would be more expensive to the public purse than a deal with bus operators, but to do nothing is a slap in the face for young people living in rural areas, especially if the Department for Transport is also interested in making it more difficult for them to use their own transport to reach schools and colleges, and has done nothing to make cycling safer.

This anti-rural area bias is just the sort of issue that might tip the balance in a few rural constituencies, were there to be a general election in the autumn. My Lib Dem colleagues could well mount campaigns along the lines of ‘Tories Take Rural Family vote for Granted’ and see what happens.

I haven’t seen any response from the National Union of Students or any of the teacher associations with members in rural areas. Neither have I seem the Local Government Association take up the cause of young people in rural areas. There is little time to change the situation for September, but I hope schools and colleges, where some pupils can benefit from the new card, will take action to ensure other students don’t drop out of education because of the cost of travel to school and college on top of all the other costs of studying faced by that age group.

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Too little: too late?

First it was Boris; then Mrs May and finally some of the other leadership contenders. What were they talking about? Not Brexit, although of course all the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership have been trying themselves up in knots of various tightness on that issue, but rather funding for schools.

Reading the runes of what was being outlined, it seems cuts to tuition fees might be some way down the track. If funding for schools and further education is back on the Tory Party agenda, it is difficult to see how the Treasury would be willing to spend more on higher education funding in the immediate future, especially once other Ministers put out their begging bowls. Sure, funding for International Development might be cut to below the level currently agreed to make some savings. This might be justified by citing Donald Trump and the USA level of aid. There might also be some cash to allow higher spending because of better tax revenues, but the police and Ministry of Justice have a real claim on extra cash to fight the rise in certain types of crime, including knife crime and the NHS can always do with more cash.

How much of the suggested increase in funding for education is real, and how much merely determined by the fact that pupil numbers will continue to increase over the next few years, is difficult to determine from the level of the pronouncements made so far, except for Boris’s statement on secondary schools. Not recognising the needs of further education and 16-18 funding might make Boris’s statement about £5,000 per pupil in the secondary sector look like vote catching idea, rather than a serious analysis of where the Tory Party’s current school funding policy has made a mistake. At least in the TV debate, FE, apprenticeships, and skills did receive a mention and, unless I missed, it selective education didn’t.

Any talk about increasing education funding by Conservative may be a case of too little and too late. The warning signs have been there for some time, and the fact that school funding didn’t play much of a part in either of the last two general elections was a bit of a surprise, although the effects on the ground were less obvious than the reductions in school reserves and the consequences of changes to come that are obvious to those that manage budgets, but were not then visible to parents.

For me the funding priorities are: 16-18 funding; early years and children’s centres; SEND funding and protecting rural schools facing falling rolls as the birth rate declines and the housing market stalls. There are other priorities, including metal health, although some cash has been allocated for this, and teacher preparation and career development. All staff will need competitive pay increases if the wider labour market remains as it currently is, but that will be true for the whole of the public sector and might reduce the amount specifically available for education; hence my earlier comment about the challenge in trying to reduce tuition fees.

Unless there is an emergency budget, any changes are not likely to reach schools before April or September 2021 at the earliest.

16 to 19 discretionary bursary fund: allocation methodology consultation

Those readers that live in rural areas might be especially interested in replying to this consultation currently open for responses. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/16-to-19-discretionary-bursary-fund-allocation-methodology

The closing date is on the 23rd May 2019, unless presumably a general election is called before then, in which case purdah rules might apply.

There is a whole section of the consultation about transport costs for this age group that will allow comments about how unfair the present arrangements are. Indeed, the consultation acknowledges the special position of London, and the TfL provisions for travel in the capital for this age group.

There is also a mention of the Grayling Rail Card that will help student using the remaining rural railways to travel to school or college, but does nothing for those travelling by bus or without any transport links at all.

The first section of the consultation is about replacing the present grant based upon student numbers times a fixed amount with a more nuanced grant based upon deprivation factors. The present arrangements were introduced when the coalition scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance introduced by the Labour government.

Given the battering that the 16-19 sector has taken over funding, the new arrangements should not be used to further withdraw cash from the sector. If ‘need’ is taken into account, It must be related to courses studies as well as income Why should students using very expensive equipment, as say on engineering courses, be provided with a free education, whereas those on catering courses may be required to buy both specialist clothing and even sets of knives.

With the learning leaving age now at eighteen, the rules should be the same for this age group as for other children in education. Local authorities, if funded, would be much better placed to provide the transport arrangements than individual schools and colleges. But, that would require an acceptance that local authorities are a ‘good thing’, something not universally accepted in government.

 

So, if you have an interest in this area, please do download and reply to the consultation. The more responses about the transport issue the better. Perhaps, we can make a difference for families living in rural areas for a change.

 

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.

 

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.

Not a rural idyll?

Once Again the DfE has categorised four primary schools within London boroughs as meeting their definition of a rural school. Two are in Enfield and the other two, an infant and junior school with the same name, are in Hillingdon.

I am sure the residents of Theobalds Park Road in Enfield will be delighted to know that they live in a ‘rural village’ according to the DfE. Their school was founded in 1858 as a National School, but it is moot point whether it is really a village school or a small school in in a relatively isolated locality on the fringe of London. On the other hand, Forty Hill Primary School, the other rural school in Enfield is genuinely in an area of isolated dwellings with little in the immediate vicinity other than the church and a few houses. Realistically, these four schools are a statistical anomaly on the fringes of our capital city.

Nationally, the DfE lists 3,806 rural primary schools in this year’s database. This list doesn’t include any rural academies as it only lists local authority schools but, it still contains 1,553 community schools; 2,079 voluntary schools, both aided and controlled, and 174 foundation schools. I don’t see why a full list of state-funded rural primary schools, including academies should not be published by the DfE..

North Yorkshire has the largest number of designated rural primary schools, with just over 200 such schools. Cumbria is second with 168; Devon and Lancashire are in joint third place with 157 each. Overall, 92 of the local authorities in England have at least one designated rural primary school within their boundaries.

648 of these primary schools are designated as in isolated hamlets or hamlets and sparse dwellings whereas 1,786 are located in or around rural villages, with a further 1,310 in a rural town or on its fringe. The remaining schools are close enough to rural towns to be regarded as in a sparse setting near the town.

These schools represent both the history of education in England and the country’s complex geography. Whether all will survive the new National Funding Formula is a moot point. Many are small, often one form entry or less schools. Although they all will probably receive more cash under the new settlement it is unlikely that the increase will be enough to meet the ever growing expenditure pressures faced by schools, especially when the pay cap is finally removed.

If these schools are going to be expected to meet pay pressures from a national funding settlement then many may find themselves unable to make ends meet. Such a situation is not one where it is easy to recruit a new head teachers, so it may be alright while the present incumbent remains in post, but finding a successor could be more of a challenge.

We know relatively little about how difficult this type of school finds it to recruit classroom teachers. Are there still a cadre of teacher willing to work in such schools? I suspect that the answer is in the affirmative for the school that is rural, but not isolated, as are many in the south of England, but not as much the case where such schools are really isolated. There was a story recently from Scotland of a school in the Highlands that has had to close because both teachers were leaving at Christmas and no replacements could be found for January.

I do hope that these schools survive, but they won’t without some serious campaigning. With the present weak state of the government there has never been a better time to put pressure on MPs with such schools in their constituency.

 

New data on schools and their pupils

Unless there is a dramatic change in the birth rate over the next few years, the peak in the primary school population is probably very close to being reached. Data on schools and pupil numbers published by the DfE today https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2017 reveal a slight decline in the number of Key State 1 infant classes above the nationally agreed limit of 30 pupils per class. The decline is only 0.1% from 11.9 to 11.8% of these classes and is still way above the 10.4% achieved in 2011 and 2012. Still, it remains below the 13.8% of 2006, and should fall further over the next few years.

There is still pressure at Key Stage 2, with average class sizes increasing from 20.4 to 20.8 across England. It seems likely that this average will continue to increase for the next couple of years that is unless Brexit results in a mass emigration of young families to other European countries. This seems less likely, although still possible, after the discussions last week on allowing existing migrants from the EU to remain in England.

There was a big jump in the average size of secondary classes, from 20.4 to 20.8, their highest level since 2008. With the increase in pupil numbers over the next few years, this average seems set to increase still further, perhaps towards the 21.5 reached in 2006.

The implications of the National Funding formula will probably be most keenly felt in the 5,400 primary schools and nearly 130 secondary schools with fewer than 200 pupils. Some of the latter may be UTCs and Studio schools with the chance to grow, but many of the primary schools could face an uncertain future with the costs of closure affecting local authority transport bills in rural areas.

On average, 12% of primary schools have less than 100 pupils. However, the average hides a wide range, from just 2% of schools in London to 19% in the East Midlands and 22% of primary sector schools in the South West. I am sure the travel implications have been taken into account by those reviewing the effects of school funding and the new formula.

The Church of England will certainly be interested in what happens to small schools under the new funding formula since more than a quarter of their primary schools have fewer than 100 pupils. In five regions the percentage of their schools with less than 100 pupils is more than 30% with the East Midlands having more than a third of Church of England primary schools being of this size. However, the Church of England has only 2% of its schools in London with less than 100 pupils, the same as the average for all schools. By contrast, London has the largest Church of England primary schools with one having more than 800 pupils. Still, by that is small compared with the largest primary school in London that has more than 1,500 pupils.