Education: 16-19 Bursary Fund — Question
3:00 pm

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Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat)

To ask Her Majesty's Government how they are planning to measure the impact of the 16-19 bursary fund on young people's participation in education.

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

My Lords, the Government publish annual and quarterly statistics on young people's participation, and we monitor the take-up of the bursary by 16 to 19 year-olds. In addition, we have commissioned an independent evaluation to examine both the process and the impact of the new bursary fund. In order to provide a valid comparison with the impact of the EMA, the study will run until July 2014 and be completed by the end of 2014.

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Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat)

I thank my noble friend for that reply. I am sure that he is aware of the Government's post-16 transport guidance, which clearly states that local authorities should ensure that accessible and affordable transport is available for all young learners. Research done by the children's charity Barnardo's-I declare an interest-suggests that many local authorities are not complying with the guidance. Young people mainly use the bursary fund to pay for their transport, and have to pay the full adult fare to colleges and schools. By providing affordable transport, local authorities will reduce the financial pressure on disadvantaged young learners, which is causing many of them to consider leaving their courses. What measures are the Government taking to remind all local authorities of their duty and obligation to provide subsidised travel for young learners?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

As my noble friend says, local authorities are under a statutory duty to ensure that they make reasonable arrangements for young people post-16 for transport. The Government are monitoring the provision made. We will continue to remind them of that duty. As my noble friend also says, one of the purposes to which the 16-19 bursary fund can be put is to pay for transport costs. Particularly for providers in rural areas, that is an important use.

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Baroness Howarth of Breckland (Crossbench)

My Lords, the parents of young people with severe disabilities are extremely anxious since funding has transferred to local authorities. There is uncertainty that funding will remain not only for travel, through bursaries, but for places. Can the Minister assure me that local authorities will be required to ensure that those young people-some of the most vulnerable-are given the opportunities of their peers?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I very much agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of making sure that the group she talks about has those opportunities. The bursary fund has a specific sum, £1,200 a year, which is available to such groups to help with costs. As she knows, our proposals for reforming special educational needs generally, with the Bill to come, cover how we can try to increase such provision. Obviously, local authorities have an important part to play in that as well.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour)

My Lords, is the Minister aware that since the very popular education and maintenance allowance was replaced with a discretionary fund allocated by individual colleges, huge discrepancies are arising in the grants available, with young people in some of the poorest parts of London, for example, receiving the least? How can that be fair, and what are the Government doing to protect young people from the postcode lottery funding under the new scheme?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

As we have previously debated, the Government decided that we had to change the EMA because it was going to 45% of all 16 to 19 year-olds and we did not feel that was a targeted measure of support. I recognise the purpose that lay behind it, but we felt that in a difficult time we had to make some savings. We have managed to reduce the costs by £380 million. There is the element that goes to the neediest children; that £1,200 a year is a fraction more than they would have received under the old system. However, we have taken the view, which I know is different from that of the previous Government, that local institutions such as schools and colleges should decide how to allocate the funds. We have put enough in there-£180 million-to pay the equivalent of the old EMA to 15% of that age group, which is about the proportion who were in receipt of free school meals.

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Baroness Brinton (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, given that three times the number of students who study in further education colleges come from backgrounds which would entitle them to free dinners, can the Minister explain why these young people are denied access to free lunches unlike their counterparts who remain in school and academy sixth forms? When will the Government end this unfair and discriminatory practice, which affects over 100,000 students?

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Lord Hill of Oareford (Conservative)

I understand the point and the anomaly to which my noble friend refers. It is true that, unfortunately, there are a number of anomalies in education where decisions on different cut-offs, age ranges and so on have been taken over the years. As regards when we will be able to put it right, I am afraid that, in the circumstances and with the current limited budgets, the honest answer is that I am not able to give her any date. It is the case that the bursary fund can be used to help defray some of those costs and I know that colleges are using it for that purpose.