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Clause 51

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

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 5:45 pm, 17th March 2009

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.