Poll: Rural families express anger over £540 annual transport fee for further education – Should five-to-16 free transport be extended?
PUBLISHED: 11:07 05 September 2014 | UPDATED: 19:23 05 September 2014
Hundreds of families in rural communities in Suffolk face a yearly transport bill of £540 to keep their children in further education – prompting concerns they are being “penalised” compared to their urban counterparts.
More than 250 parents have signed a petition launched this week calling on Suffolk County Council (SCC) to “lead the way” in providing free home-to-school transport to students aged over 16.
It follows a change in the law last year stating all young people must stay in some form of education or training until they are 17. It increases to 18 next year.
They can stay in full-time education such as sixth form or college, sign up to apprenticeships or take up part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering full-time.
Last night, Louise Cullen, of Chelmondiston, near Ipswich, who launched the petition and has three daughters aged 12, 14 and 15, argued: “If education is compulsory then surely access to it must be free and fair.
“For many Suffolk rural families, especially those with children in consecutive year groups, twins or triplets, this is a cost they cannot afford.
“The whole system is dilapidated and needs a thorough review. I don’t blame Suffolk County Council as it is national government policy – but Suffolk can lead the way.”
Currently, for children aged eight or above, SCC provides free home-to school transport if they live three miles or more from the catchment school or nearest school.
But there is no entitlement for free home-to-school transport from the age of 16, and the government has not provided any further funding, according to the county council.
However, the authority offers a subsidised transport scheme for post-16 college or sixth form students – usually via public transport.
For this academic year, it costs £540 per student. This represents around 60% of the cost to the council. Travel is provided on a return basis and students are given a travel pass. It can be paid in three termly instalments of £180.
Last year it cost £510, and a payment of at least £570 has been provisionally set for next year.
Lisa Chambers, cabinet member for education and skills at SCC, said the authority understood the challenges rural families face but stressed they are unable to increase the £18milllion currently spent every year on home-to-school transport.
She said additional financial support is available to families. The Government’s 16-19 Bursary Fund provides up to £1,200 bursaries for young people from poorer backgrounds. Under the scheme, schools and colleges can also offer bursaries to youngsters struggling financially, helping them with transport, meals and equipment costs.
Teenagers aged 16-19 can also apply for an ‘Endeavour Card’ – a SCC scheme offering a 25% discount off full-price adult bus fares.
There are 15,820 16-17-year-olds in Suffolk, the latest government data shows.
The petition says: “It is not fair to punish children and families for living in rural communities.”
Michele Lawrence, mother to 13-year-old triplets Matthew, Marcus and Claudia in Chelmondiston, will have to pay at least £1,600 every year for SCC’s subsidised transport scheme.
Mrs Lawrence said: “Where we live, we don’t have a choice. They get the free school bus to Holbrook Academy but the nearest sixth form is One; around five miles away.
“It is a bit of an oversight. Maybe they hoped no-one would flag it up.”
Mrs Chambers said: “Changes in the law mean that young people up to the age of 17, or 18 from next year, are required to stay in full or part time education, work-based training or take on an apprenticeship. The changes are not just about staying on at school.
“For those that choose to remain in full time education, there are a number of ways in which financial support is given to help them travel to and from their place of learning.
“These include subsidised bus passes, bursaries and the Endeavour Card which gives young people discounted travel. Schools and colleges also have funding which they can use to provide extra bursaries.
“There is no legal entitlement to home to school transport from the age of 16 and the government has not provided any further funding for it.
“Home to school transport already costs Suffolk taxpayers £18 million a year and extending this would add considerable, and unaffordable, costs.
“We understand the challenges of living in rural areas and sending young people to school – which is why we have these financial support arrangements in place.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “The legal responsibility for transport to education and training for 16 to 19 year olds rests with councils, who are free to put in place appropriate arrangements and are expected to make reasonable decisions based on local need.
“Many young people have access to discounts on travel to education or training through their local authority, travel company or their school or college. In addition, our £180m Bursary Fund, available to schools and colleges to meet the needs of disadvantaged young people, is often used to help with transport costs.”
To sign the petition, visit www.change.org/p/suffolk-county-council-provide-bus-travel-for-16-year-olds-to-get-to-school