Clause 68

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 26th February 2008.

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Provision of transport etc for persons of sixth form age: duty to consider journey times

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment No. 114, in clause 68, page 38, line 35, at end add—

‘(2) The Secretary of State shall commission an independent report into the funding requirements necessary to enable local authorities to provide transport to enable pupils or students to access the entitlement to participate in the diploma programme.’.

Clause 68 requires local authorities, when they are drawing up their school transport policy for young people of sixth form age, to take into account journey times as well as journey costs and distance. There can be no quibble about that. The real concern is the statement in the impact assessment that says, on page 34, paragraph 6.10:

“We do not expect this change to place any additional cost burdens on local authorities.”

The Government’s argument is that local authorities already spend about £900 million a year on educational transport, funded by the formula grant from central Government and through the council tax. To quote from the impact assessment:

“councils are free to use the funding in line with the wishes of their electorate and taking into account their statutory responsibilities.”

However, the Bill increases those very statutory duties and responsibilities, and it does not appear that the Government have matched those increased responsibilities with increased funding. The Local Government Association has expressed its concern and said in its briefing to the Committee:

“This is a case where we remain unconvinced of estimated costs to implement sufficient provision given the nature of 14-19” education. The LGA points out that many young people of sixth form age, studying for a vocational qualification, might need to travel to different sites.

Interestingly, the Government’s Green Paper sets out their original thinking on the transport implications of raising the participation age to 18 in paragraph 5.17, stating:

“Currently, in relation to pre-16 education, the local authority is required to provide free home-to-school transport for young people where it considers this necessary to facilitate the young person’s attendance...From September 2008 young people from low-income families will be entitled to free travel to one of their three nearest schools, where this is between two and six miles from their home”.

We dealt with that in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The next paragraph of the Green Paper, 5.18, goes on:

“As part of these proposals to introduce compulsory participation, we will consider whether changes to the post-16 transport policy would be required, including meeting the cost of any new burdens on local authorities. We will consider and consult on, for example, whether to extend and adapt the current pre-16 school transport regulations, and could also investigate the feasibility of providing subsidised transport to 16-18 year olds who are in education or training”.

However, when one looks at the Government’s paper “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16: From policy to legislation”, which is in effect the White Paper leading to the Bill, one sees that the only reference to transport is in paragraph 5.6 on page 26, which mentions:

“A clarification of local authorities’ existing duties in relation to transport, ensuring that, in devising their transport policies for 16 - 18 year olds, they consider travelling time.”

That is all that is said. No mention is made of meeting the costs of any new burden on local authorities or of investigating the feasibility of providing subsidised transport for 15 to 18-year-olds, which is why the impact assessment shows no additional costs to be incurred by local authorities.

That is also why the Association of Colleges has expressed its disappointment that the Bill

“does not strengthen the obligation on local authorities to ensure that affordable transport is available.”

The AOC feels strongly that:

“The provision of affordable transport is vital to assist young people in accessing the right course and in exercising informed choice, which may require study at more than one institution...Local authorities need to take action to ensure that transport is affordable, reliable and convenient for all 16 — 18 year olds.”

The Association of School and College Leaders has also raised concerns about transport, saying that:

“That issue of transport is crucial to all options becoming available to all students...The whole issue of 14 - 19 transport needs to be reviewed, properly managed and funded, not least in relation to its increasingly large carbon footprint. Funding for transport must not be taken from the existing education budget.”

Amendment No. 114 would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent report into the genuine funding requirements that will enable local authorities to provide the transport that will be needed if students are to access the entitlement to vocational education.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I rise to support the aim of the amendment, which is the same as that of amendment No. 158, which we shall come to shortly, although perhaps from a slightly different direction. I think that the Government have massively underestimated the funding that will be necessary to ensure that transport is in place so that the roll-out of diplomas and meaningful choice at 16 will be available to everyone across this country.

We have already seen, with the welcome introduction of free bus travel for those of pensionable age, that that has unforeseen cost consequences for many local authorities in different parts of the country—for example, seaside towns and cities that are tourist attractions, such as my constituency in Bristol. The funding that is in place for that is not adequate, despite what the Government said when they introduced the concessionary bus travel scheme. In those circumstances, we do not want to see a further cost burden on local government.

Despite what the Government say in their regulatory impact assessment, people do travel across boundaries to go from one college to another and they do live and study in different authority areas. We do not want to find that certain local authorities are placed under much heavier cost burdens than others in 2013. I broadly support what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton argued, but I will stop my remarks there as I have more to say when I speak to the next amendment.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I support of the amendment, as I feel that it is essential that the Secretary of State should commission an independent report to establish the funding requirements for the provision of transport. I speak as a former chairman of the school transport sub-committee of Essex county council, in my days as a county councillor. Our job was to establish the statutory entitlement of applicants to free transport. Once a month, the sub-committee used to get in a minibus and be driven around the county to the homes of the families that were applying for free transport. We often walked from the home to the school to see whether it was feasible and a safe walking distance and whether entitlement to free transport could be established. Elements such as distance and the existence of lighting and footpaths came into our discussions, and we frequently crossed railway lines and farmyards to establish that the route from home to school was not suitable to be walked by a child.

If 16 and 17-year-olds are to be entitled to free transport, there will be a huge additional cost. The cost of transport to education authorities is already  enormous. If older children are to be included, the cost will be much higher. The provisions of the Bill also encompass special needs children, including those with mobility problems. Education authority budgets will not be sufficient to take that additional burden. For that reason, I strongly support the amendment. An independent report is needed to establish the real cost of free school transport.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

As we heard, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent report on the funding requirements necessary to enable local authorities to provide transport so that pupils or students could access their entitlement to participate in the diploma programme. In many ways, I entirely agree with its aim. In fact, I agree so much that I am pleased to inform the Committee that we have already commissioned York Consulting to undertake research into transport needs stemming from the introduction of the 14-to-19 reforms, including diplomas. That report, due to be published in June, will consider a range of transport factors, including the funding costs of transport available to local authorities, in order to ensure access.

We agree with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton so much that not only have we commissioned a report from York Consulting, but we are also conducting research on the delivery of the diploma in rural areas. It is in rural areas, of course, that transport issues feature more prominently. An interim report was published last November, and we plan to publish the final report shortly.

Angela Watkinson rose—

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I give way to the hon. Member for Upminster, who so assiduously performed her duties on the transport sub-committee of Essex county council.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. One thing that often surprised us in testing whether children were entitled to free transport was that in many cases there would be an adult at home all day and several cars on the driveway—but it did not affect their entitlement. Will the Minister say whether that will be taken into consideration when assessing entitlement under the Bill?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The matters that will be assessed in respect of the amendments are set out in the clause. The only change that we are making is to do with journey time. Other issues, such as distance, will be included, but I doubt whether the number of cars in the drive will be taken into account.

The reports on diploma delivery in rural areas, to be publishing shortly, will show that it is important to consider access in a wider context than simple transport solutions. For instance, e-learning, common timetabling, peripatetic teaching and mobile provision are existing ways to ensure access to provision without asking young people to travel long distances. However, I have sympathy with the idea of free or subsidised transport for young learners. Some local authorities already provide it, which is another reason for it being quite difficult, in the relatively early days of diploma delivery, to make blanket announcements.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I shall give way in a moment. I am aware that some authorities, such as Cumbria, already provide free transport for post-16 learners in rural areas.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am delighted to have anticipated the intervention from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Of my two concerns about requiring all areas to have free or subsidised transport for young learners, one is that it may not fulfil its purpose in helping the young people who most need help. Making transport free is fine, as long as there is provision for them to use it. However, if the bus does not travel through their village or does not travel at a time that allows them to access education, it is not necessarily the answer. We may need to be slightly more sophisticated than merely allowing for free provision, attractive though the headlines might be.

Also, local authorities are currently responsible for transport for 16 to 19-year-old learners, and it is important that they retain some discretion in how they spend and target their funding. As the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, we would need proper consultation on the proposals might be brought forward as a result of the various reports and pieces of research that we have commissioned to inform our policy as we roll out diplomas and tackle transport concerns. I am delighted to give way to the hon. Member for Broxbourne.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The Minister is a real gent. Would free travel extend, in more urban and suburban seats, to rail and tube links, for example? I know that, in my constituency, youngsters go out of Enfield, into Cheshunt, and back to Enfield using train routes.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I want to make it clear that the hon. Gentleman has not heard me say that I am committing to free transport. I have said that I have some sympathy with the idea of free or subsidised transport. That is something that the Youth Parliament campaigns on strongly. I have held meetings with its members, and, as with other matters that they raise, such as sexual relationship education, it is important that we listen carefully to what they have to say. On whether the proposals on transport will apply in suburban areas, we will have to have a model ensuring that every young person has good access to the range of provision that they need to fulfil their duties in part 1, and therefore to the range of diplomas to which they will be entitled from 2013.

In the light of the fact that we are doing what the amendment asks us to do, I hope that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will be happy to withdraw it.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am slightly encouraged. The amendment goes to the root of the policy of raising participation to 18, particularly in rural areas. It is disappointing that  the final “Delivering 14-19 Reforms in Rural Areas” report, which is due shortly, was not available before this debate. I hope that it will be available before Report, so that it can inform the House about the precise implications of the duty on transport to and from the various colleges and sixth form settings for young people to whom the new duty will apply.

It is also strange that although the Green Paper, “Raising Expectations”, stated that

“we will consider whether changes to the post-16 transport policy would be required, including meeting the cost of any new burdens on local authorities...We will consider and consult”,

that phrasing and statement of intention is missing from the White Paper. That is a major gap in the cohesiveness of the policy.

I am semi-assured by the Minister’s response and I look forward to seeing the report from York Consulting and the “Delivering 14-19 Reforms in Rural Areas” report. I hope that they will lead to a policy that will enable the new duty to be a reality on the ground.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps it should be drawn to the Committee’s attention that special needs students, particularly those with mobility problems, will not be able to use public transport and will need door-to-door transport. That involves a huge cost.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

As always, my hon. Friend is a champion of young people with special needs. She makes a valid point again on this occasion.

In view of the Minister’s response to the debate, we will not press the amendment to a Division. We have had a good debate and the matter has been aired. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I beg to move amendment No. 158, in clause 68, page 38, line 36, at end insert—

‘(ii)

(a) delete subsection (3)(d), and

(b) insert—

“(8) in preparing a statement under that section a local education authority has a duty to ensure affordable transport.”’.

We have just considered the affordability for local authorities of the changes that will be brought about if the Bill is enacted. The purpose of the amendment is to consider their affordability for the individual student. We have spent much time this afternoon discussing the importance of independent advice and guidance for young people to make sure that the Bill is successful. Transport and its adequacy and affordability are also essential if this brave new educational world which we are being invited to enter is to succeed.

The Bill as drafted would add time to the existing provisions in local authority transport plans, which already include cost, distance and the need to ensure that there is choice in educational provision. However, it does not specifically deal with affordability. That is quite different because bus fares, train fares or whatever vary enormously around the country, as do individual incomes. The affordability as well as the cost of fares needs to be borne in mind.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Those worst affected are likely to be in places that are very rural and sparsely populated and where average incomes are low—areas with low-skill, low-wage economies such as Lincolnshire and South Holland and The Deepings. The difficulty is that to access opportunity, people have to travel long distances and often cannot afford to do so.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes an entirely valid point. Movements between different parts of cities are another factor. I do not represent the area, but south Bristol has pockets of extreme poverty and many of the educational and employment opportunities are in the north or on the north-west rim of the city at the M4-M5 interchange. Bristol has the most expensive public transport bus fares in the country. So there are cost barriers within urban areas too.

Once the full roll-out of diplomas has taken place in 2013, it is quite obvious that 14, 15 and 16-year-olds will travel around much more than they do under the existing educational offer. For the purposes of the Bill we are considering provision beyond the age of 16. When compulsion is introduced, many more people will be travelling, whether they are doing the advanced diploma, A-levels, apprenticeships or work-based training. The unavailability of public transport will be a source of constant frustration to many people around the country.

I have mentioned before the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the nearest further education college to Berwick-upon-Tweed is 50 miles away. Transport will clearly be a consideration in his area. Although the Bill considers time, or adds time to the existing list of considerations that local authorities will bear in mind, that might be regarded as somewhat ironic in many parts of the country. I have already mentioned Bristol where, ironically, it can probably take longer to travel from one side of the city to the other than it may take to travel from Berwick to Alnwick or any other part of Northumberland. Time is not the same in all parts of the country, whatever the laws of physics say. It is certainly not the same when it comes to public transport.

It would be a shame if people’s choice was limited by the public transport offer available to them, such that choice was only able to be meaningfully exercised by those who have access to a car. One of the unforeseen consequences of the Bill might be to encourage more 17-year-olds to put pressure on their parents to let them learn to drive at perhaps too young an age, which could lead to other unfortunate consequences.

During the evidence-taking session at the start of the proceedings, and in subsequent information given to me, the Association of Colleges said that 87 per cent. of further education colleges currently already feel that they must subsidise their students to ensure that they can travel to the courses offered by those colleges. The provision currently available from local authorities or from the pockets of individuals is not sufficient to meet the current requirements of further education. The average cost per further education college is a staggering £305,000—that is the average cost out of the existing budget that a college needs to find to subsidise its students’ travel plans.

Various solutions have been put in place in some parts of the country. In my own area, across the old county of Avon and Somerset, local authorities and the local bus companies have put together a youth rover ticket, which costs £420 a year. In London, public transport is to some extent subsidised for younger people.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith PPS (Mr Phil Woolas, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the increase in the number of people that we are talking about participating under the Bill is a very small percentage of the whole number of young people in the cohort? Any additional expenditure will be a very small percentage of what he describes.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

The percentage of the cohort not in education, employment or training, at whom the Bill is largely directed, is—depending on who you believe—somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent. That is not an insignificant increase in the number of people who may be travelling around. However, not only will more people be caught directly by the provisions of the Bill, but the educational landscape will change considerably over the next few years as diplomas are rolled out. That change in the underlying structure of the courses that people have access to will, in itself, cause many more people than that 15 per cent. to travel around.

I, the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who often says this, all want the diplomas to be a success, but if they are a success, more young people will travel about the country than is currently the case. It is not just about a narrow number, whether that is the 10 or 15 per cent. of the current cohort; it is that many more additional journeys will be made in the next few years, irrespective of what happens under the Bill.

I see that the clock is crunching down on me, but the main purpose of the amendment is to ensure that when York Consulting provides its independent report on transport plans to the Government, it will look at affordability as well as the other factors currently within local authority transport plans. I hope that the Minister will give the same assurance to me as he gave the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton on a previous amendment.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I have enjoyed the debate. Time is not the same in all parts of the country—certainly, those listening to our debate this afternoon may have agreed with that sentiment. I was reminded of a previous Public Bill Committee where another representative of the Liberal Democrats told me that in part of Devon, the sun rises in the south. That was equally bizarre.

To get to the point, I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol, West that access to timely and affordable transport is integral to helping young people to access education and training, but I do not believe that the amendment is the answer to those challenges. Local authorities already have a duty to draw up a transport policy statement under section 509(1) of the Education Act 1996. The policy statements relate to young people travelling to school or college. The statement must set out the provision of transport that they consider necessary to facilitate the attendance of people of sixth form age in education.

In preparing the statements, local authorities must take a number of factors into account: cost is one, but the distance between home and school and the need to ensure choice in education are equally important. Local authorities must also consider the needs of students who would not be able to attend a particular education or training establishment without help or support—the hon. Member for Upminster mentioned that. Finally, the transport policy statement must set out any arrangements for help with travel expenses that the authority considers necessary. Those duties should already ensure that transport costs do not prevent young people from attending school or college.

Accepting the amendment would not solve the problem of the absence of transport infrastructure. That is important to ensure that people access education provision, which we are all seeking to do. Cost is not the only factor that we should bear in mind. Beyond the reassurances that I gave on the previous amendment on the work that we are already doing to inform policy on the matter, let me say that affordability and cost are factors in the work that York Consulting is carrying out. I shall not dwell on the technical issues raised by the amendment about how to define affordable transport.

The Learning and Skills Council makes £32 million available through learner support hardship funds to colleges and school sixth forms for that age group. Around 35 per cent.—more than a third—of that funding is used to help individual students who have particular difficulty meeting the cost of transport. The LSC also offers, as we know, support to that age group through the education maintenance allowance. That is not specifically aimed at transport—far from it—but households and students can receive up to £30 a week from the EMA. An element of that might be used toward transport costs, but it would not be reasonable to expect a young person to use all of it for those costs. It is certainly worth bearing in mind that important Government innovation.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills) 7:00 pm, 26th February 2008

I certainly supported the introduction of the EMA but, as I understand it, it was meant to be an incentive to people to participate in education rather than to meet transport costs. If the Minister thinks that everything is okay at the moment and that no further work needs to be done, why does he think that 87 per cent. of colleges feel the need to subsidise their students’ transportation costs?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am not necessarily saying that everything is completely rosy and we have commissioned further work on the matter. Various obligations and duties are placed on local authorities by the Education Act 1996 and others in respect of learner support, as I said, so that people can access transport. Those powers will be used, but we clearly have more work to do on cost levels, what is affordable, and what is the right form of transport, if we are going to succeed in the policy aim of raising participation. The crucial thing is the powers, which are set out in the 1996 Act, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say. I am not sure what my unspecified hon. Friend meant when he said that the sun sets or rises or whatever it was in the south. That seems to be rather a bizarre statement.

I said that time and distance were not the same. We cannot have an exact equation in all parts of the country because travelling a short distance in the city of Bristol may take longer than travelling a long distance in a rural area. Those things are not as simple as they seem.

I am not particularly reassured that the Minister takes on board fully the fact that affordability is a major factor for some people. That is why colleges must spend on average £305,000 out of their budgets, which is intended for other purposes, on transportation costs. None the less, we eagerly await the findings of York Consulting. I am sure that we will have to return to this topic at a later date when we have read the report, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.