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Clause 51

– in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 17th March 2009.

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Transport policy statements for persons of sixth form age: consultation

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 125, in clause 51, page 32, line 43, at end add—

‘( ) In section 509AB of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) (further provision about transport policy statement) after subsection (7) insert—

“(8) In performing the duty to consult, an authority shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State concerning the timing and manner of consultations under this section.

(9) An authority shall make available to persons or bodies it proposes to consult under this section such information as may be prescribed and is in its possession or control; and it shall do so in such form and manner, and at such time, as may be prescribed.”.’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Further provision about transport policy statements—

‘(1) In section 509AB of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) omit subsection (3)(d) and insert after subsection (7)—

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

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

We now move on to transport following our rather tortuous discussions on education in youth offending institutions and so on. Amendment 125 would insert a requirement for consultation in the Bill. There is a very good reason for that. Most people would agree that local authority transport plans need to be made—after proper consultation with colleges and other appropriate stakeholders—yet the Association of Colleges’ 2008 survey found that that did not happen in 40 per cent. of cases. That is quite staggering when considering the importance of transport in the Bill’s proposals. It is therefore very important to make sure that that really  happens. There are a number of general points that I want to make and I will attach those to my comments on new clause 2.

I would like to make a number of probing points on whether a local authority should have a duty to provide affordable transport. The Bill proposes strengthening transport arrangements for 16 to 18-year-old students and I think that we all applaud that. When publishing their annual transport policy statement, local authorities will have to set out, in full, their thinking behind the statement and publish it in good time so that young people and parents can take account of it when making decisions about where to study. That is all very important, but at the moment there is no duty to provide affordable transport that takes into account the ability of young people to pay. Cost considerations are from the point of view of the local authority rather than the learner, and we have been emphasising today how important it is that the learner should be at the fore.

There are inconsistencies in the provision from different local authorities. Analysis of local authority transport policies in 2006-07 for students aged 16 to 19 shows that charges can be from between £60 to £550 per year. Free transport provision is available from some, but for the most part it is means-tested. The charge can cover anything—from the student’s contribution to student bus passes, places on local authority-provided buses, train passes, mileage allowance, or whatever the local authority has agreed to subsidise. While I am all in favour of local decision making, we have to determine that there is equitable provision for our young people across the country.

For the most part, local authorities will provide only free or subsidised transport to the nearest or nearest appropriate educational establishment. It is important to consider the young person who is travelling to undertake a course that is on offer at a particular institution only, or to a specialist college, which might be outside the home local authority boundary. The Government have encouraged colleges, schools and training providers to specialise and to offer more options, but sometimes young people need to travel further to access the right course. Choice in education is what we all wish for, but it can be expensive. However, if we have skill shortages, then we have to accept that travelling might be essential. It is important that young people have a genuine choice about their education and training, and that they should not face barriers relating to transport.

I have several specific questions that follow on from that. For example, colleges have been told by the Learning and Skills Council that they must no longer use the learner support fund—a fund to help disadvantaged students access courses—to fund transport. It would be very useful if the Minister clarified whether colleges can use that fund and whether the final responsibility to fund student transport should lie with local authorities.

There has to be concern about transport provision when colleges currently spend an average of £305,000 per year subsidising student travel. For example, Kingston Maurwood college in Dorset specialises in agriculture and many other very good courses. It manages to get a high proportion of students attending by having a very innovative transport policy that collects students from across the urban conurbation, as well serving the rural area. That issue is very unclear in terms of the future of colleges and needs to be addressed.

The Bill proposes that local authorities publish a transport policy statement covering travel arrangements for students aged 19 to 25 with a learning difficulty assessment under the Learning and Skills Act 2000. Does this mean that, on transport provision, students with learning difficulties who do not have a relevant assessment will be treated as adults, despite their additional needs? The purpose of the new clause is to put a firm responsibility on the local authority to ensure that there is genuine transport provision, so that all students can access the course that suits them best—while taking on board any disproportionality, as we discussed earlier today. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I want to add some brief comments to this short but interesting debate. The hon. Lady raises some significant matters, and I want to emphasise their significance for rural areas. She spoke about the inconsistency of provision, and it would have the most devastating effect in those places where people will have to travel furthest to access the right training and education. In my constituency in Lincolnshire, for example, there is no FE college; the FE colleges that serve my constituents are in Boston, Stamford and Peterborough, so journeys are significant, take time and involve costs.

There are some important issues about guaranteeing adequate skills training and education for people in rural communities. Not all rural areas are immensely privileged, as some might believe. My constituency has an economic profile that, in a nutshell, could be described as one of high employment, low skills, relatively low educational attainment and real deprivation, so it is important that the Minister deal appropriately and clearly with the hon. Lady’s points; otherwise, doubts will remain about the opportunities for young people and others in communities such as those that I represent.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

The clause will give young people a new voice in the local transport arrangements for those of sixth-form age, and, by requiring local authorities to consult young people on the drawing up of their transport policy statements and ensuring that the statements can be amended in response to complaints, we will strengthen local accountability in the implementation of the current duty. The measures should ensure that local authorities are bound to give adequate consideration to the cost of transport and affordability when they develop their statement. Local authorities already consult young people and their parents on a range of children’s services, and we envisage that they will build on their existing good practice in consulting young people and their parents about transport provision.

Following the proposed transfer of responsibilities from the Learning and Skills Council, we intend that the Secretary of State issue guidance under section 509AB(5) of the Education Act 1996. We will use the guidance to set out our expectations of local authorities when consulting young people and examples of good practice. Given that we will put that in the guidance, we do not feel it necessary to include amendment 125, so, in the light of that assurance, we ask the hon. Lady to withdraw it.

On new clause 2, we share the hon. Lady’s view that access to affordable transport is integral to helping young people access education and training. Current  legislation strikes a balance between protecting the interests of young people everywhere and giving local authorities the flexibility to direct resources to local priorities. I am sure that she will agree that it is right that local authorities should have the discretion to determine how to target their funding to meet local needs. The increase in total Government grant for local services since 1997 will stand at 45 per cent. in real terms by 2010-11. Drawing on that funding, the current duty already requires local authorities to take into account the cost of transport in preparing their transport policy statements, and that should ensure that transport is affordable for young people.

The hon. Lady spoke about colleges and their requirements. While colleges might wish to provide discretionary financial support for individual learners facing particular hardship, we do not expect them to fund transport provision routinely. With regard to young people aged 19 to 24 with learning difficulties, we are strengthening our learning difficulty assessment guidance to include an explicit reference to consider a young person’s wider needs, including transport. New section 508G in the Education Act 1996 will place a duty on local education authorities to make available in a transport policy statement information about the travel provision they have to put in place for young people aged 19 to 24.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 6:00 pm, 17th March 2009

It is exceedingly important to tease out where the responsibility will be for the college and the local education authority. Colleges have increasingly been put in a position in which they have had to top up transport because local authorities are not funding that. Equally, many in local authorities say that students have their education maintenance allowance, but I am not convinced that the EMA is necessarily intended for transport fees. Can we be clear that local authorities will have adequate funding?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I have made the point that the increase local authorities have had in their funding has enabled them to fulfil their transport duties. It is not necessarily intended that the EMA should be used to fund transport. We do not expect colleges to fund transport routinely. That is the responsibility of the local education authority. Given my remarks on amendment 125 and new clause 2, I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

It is of course welcome that students and their parents are being consulted, but the fact that colleges are having to provide transport to overcome the shortcomings means that the consultation has to be wider and also go to the providers so that they can have their input in the local authority transport plan if the local authority is to have ultimate responsibility for this. I ask the Minister to take that on board. That will have to be clear in the guidance. I would also like to echo the points made on colleges in rural areas, as an important issue is that some young people in those areas cannot access courses. That will be an expensive provision, but if we truly mean it, it has to be backed by funds and resources. We cannot tell young people that they can have all these opportunities when in reality there could  be a barrier. I will perhaps revisit those points later, but having made those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.