[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the cost of school transport.
It is a delight to start the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is also a delight to see the Minister for Schools in his place. He is known as a champion of parental choice in education. I look forward to his response to this debate on school transport costs.
In many ways, this is not a partisan debate; it is all about parental choice and whether people should be, in essence, fined or taxed for sending their youngsters to the school that they prefer. That could be a faith-based school or a grammar school to which someone who has managed to pass the 11-plus or admission exam has been admitted. The child and parents might prefer a single-sex school. I will focus on the Ribble Valley, but I understand that the problem is happening increasingly in other areas now.
We know that a lot of local authorities are under financial stress; they must live within their budgets and must look for savings, but irrespective of the colour of party control of authorities, they are picking on school transport costs because they have, in the main, an element of discretion on them. Youngsters who are on free school meals or working tax credit will get support paid for irrespective of where they live, but the vast majority of everybody else in Lancashire could find themselves having to pay more than £500 per child simply because the school that they wish their child to go to is a bit further than the next nearest school. Later in my speech, I hope to pick at least one absurd example where that happens: the schools back on to one another and yet parents are asked to fork out £500 a time simply because they want their child to go to a Catholic school.
I am not being partisan. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), who would have liked to be here today but has had to return to her constituency, emailed me to say that she strongly opposes the county’s stand on education transport costs. She said:
“Those who exercise their right to religious education where the school is more than the specified distance from home are forced to pay transport costs if there is a state school closer. Outrageous! You have my full support on this issue”.
She said that she would be delighted if I shared that with the Chamber today.
A number of parents have contacted my office over the past 12 months about their youngsters and the fact that they found that their choices came with financial strings. A lot of people who are just above the income level for free school meals or working tax credits find themselves being stung for up to £500 of taxed income. Parents from Mellor, one from near Burnley, which is just outside my patch, Lango, which is inside my area, Samlesbury, Chipping, Bamber Bridge, Wilpshire, Lostock Hall and several parents from Waddington, Dunstop Bridge and surrounding districts contacted me just before the general election to say that they were outraged by one particular instance. The local authority was edging them towards a school, suggesting that it was the school—Bowland high school—that it wanted them to take, because it was in the catchment area and was where all the youngsters tended to go. The parents who got in touch with me said, “We put the school down as No. 1, Mr Evans, and we were delighted when we got it.”—maybe it was where the child’s siblings or friends were going—“but then the bombshell happened.” They received a letter from the county council saying, “You’ve been given the school that was your first preference, but we have to tell you that as the crow flies your nearest school is in Clitheroe. You are now going to be charged £500 per child for sending your youngster to the school we wanted you to send them to.” That is absolutely outrageous. Of course, once a parent has made a choice, there is nothing they can do. If the parents had known that in advance, they could have put Clitheroe down as their first choice, and would more than likely have been turned down, because the school would have been full of youngsters from the area. The local authority would then have said, “You now have to take your second choice, which is Bowland high, and because it is your second choice, we will pay.” A huge anomaly has resulted from the fact that the council wants to save money and thinks that it can do so by scorching parents for £500 a child.
I wrote to the chief executive of Lancashire County Council to say that the situation was appalling and ask her to do something about it. She wrote back to me in September 2014:
“The Council has no statutory duty to provide transport assistance in circumstances where pupils do not attend their nearest school or academy. Granting assistance to pupils who attend faith schools and academies which are not the nearest establishments to a home address is a discretionary element of the Council’s policy.”
The “discretionary” bit is what it is all about. Council after council throughout the country are deciding, “It’s easy pickings. We’re going to ignore the discretionary bit and we’re not going to give it.” Even on appeal, when people write to say that they are finding it hard to provide £500 per child, they still get turned down. If they want their youngster to go to the school, they have to pay.
In the olden days, when deciding where to put the Catholic school in Clitheroe, many people thought that it should be in the centre. They were told, “No, we have some land out in Billington, so that is where it’s going to go. Don’t worry, there will be school transport for the youngsters to be ferried from Clitheroe to Billington at no cost.” Therefore, no protest was made about the siting of the school. It is a very good school. Lots of Catholic parents in Clitheroe want to send their youngsters there. They have to pass at least two schools in some cases, if not just one, before they get to the Catholic school. If they want their youngsters to go to the Catholic school and they are from Clitheroe or outlying villages, they have to pay the full cost. Call me old fashioned, but I think that is discrimination. We are saying to the parents, “If you want a faith-based education, you’re going to have to pay, but if you want to go to the non-faith-based school, you’ll get it for free.” That cannot be right. I know that the Minister believes in parental choice; he is a champion of parental choice. Surely we should ensure that if people wish to travel a reasonable distance—perhaps a distance that they prescribe themselves, which could be up to 15 miles—they should be eligible for free school transport. I am not saying that someone should be able to travel 40 miles down the road to a school.
In her letter, Jo Turton, the chief executive of Lancashire County Council, explained how much money the council had to cut, and how it requires difficult decisions. I looked at it and decided to find out how much the chief executive of Lancashire County Council earns. It is a package, including pensions and all that sort of stuff, of £206,000. That is a bit eye-watering; it is rather high. Why does she not make some difficult decisions there? Cut it back. The salary bit is £169,000, so she could make a difficult decision and cut it to below what the Prime Minister earns, which as we know is £147,000, if he took it all, which he does not. That would be a nice, difficult decision for her to make. Indeed, seven salaries on Lancashire County Council add up to over £1 million. Make a difficult decision there; cut it back. Lead from the front. That would be courageous. No, they will not do that, but they expect parents to dip into their own taxed income to pay £500 a child, and that cannot be right.
One area where two schools back on to one another is Longridge. There is Longridge high school and the Catholic school St Cecilia’s just behind. I have 30-odd wonderful, lovely villages. If parents want their child to be educated in Longridge, which is where the nearest secondary schools are, and they happen to be Catholic, the bus stops outside Longridge high school first. The schools back on to one another and the youngsters can—and do—get out at Longridge high and walk through a ginnel to get to St Cecilia’s. That is fine, but the Catholics get charged. It is only those who go to Longridge high who do not get charged. That is clearly absurd.
Woe betide those who decide that they want the education that is offered by the grammar school and manage to pass the admissions exam. If they pass another school that is non-grammar, they have to pay. That seems like a tax or penalty on academic success. I am really lucky that I have some very good schools. There is not a single school in my constituency that I would have reservations about sending my children to, if I had any. If I decided that I wanted them to go to the grammar school, the Catholic school or another faith-based school, I do not see why I should be penalised for taking my parental choice.
I mentioned Bowland high school, which is smaller than Ribblesdale school in Clitheroe. Some parents decide, if they have a sensitive child, that they would prefer him or her to be educated in a more rural setting. It has a brilliant and relatively new sports centre and they might prefer their child to be at that school. It may be that a school specialises in the arts or sciences. If parents choose that school, they will be penalised because the local authority, while it has discretion, has decided that it is not going to use it.
I am delighted to see the newly elected Chairman of the Education Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael)—a popular choice. I took the opportunity to raise this issue with him as soon as the jubilation at his success had died down, and suggested that his Committee might like to conduct an inquiry into this policy. We all believe that education should be free at the point of use. Parents have the choice, if they wish, to pay for their youngster to go, for example in my constituency, to Stonyhurst. That is a private school and, if parents want to pay the fees, their child can go there; it is a fantastic school.
I do not think anybody would quibble with parents paying transport costs to get their youngster to that private school. They have made that firm decision. If parents wish their child to go to a school within the state sector and decide that it should be a single-sex, faith-based or grammar school, I do not believe that they deserve to be caned. If they have two or three children, it can be incredibly expensive. Mr Walker, you might find that people are making choices based not on what is in the best interest of the youngster but, sadly, on what is in the best interests of their wallets or purses, simply because they have difficult financial decisions to make.
I have also received correspondence from the Association of Colleges, which pointed out to me that, of course, parents now have to pay anyway after their child is 16. We have moved into a different era now, when—in the main—people are expected to go to college between 16 and 18. Local authorities have not caught up with that, and it can be incredibly expensive for parents to send their 16-year-old to a specialist college a few miles away, but they have to stump up for them.
This problem hits people irrespective of their constituency, but it hits people harder in rural areas, where the grammar schools or secondary schools tend to be further spaced out than in urban areas, and of course people in rural areas often live in villages that are miles away from schools. In many cases, rural transport is inferior to urban transport, so it may well be that parents have to make a decision about whether they themselves ferry their youngsters to school as they go to work. It is particularly galling for parents when they see the bus coming into their village, youngsters going to the nearest school getting on for free, and spaces on that bus, and yet they have to take their child to school themselves because they cannot afford the £500 or so each year for school transport.
What is even more surprising is that the county council has already stated that each year the cost to parents will go up by 5% above inflation. We are delighted that inflation is as low as it is, thanks to the long-term economic plan, but a 5% rise, year on year, and compounded, can be incredibly expensive.
I would like the Minister to do something. I have raised this issue several times in the House, and I know that it is the responsibility of another Government Department, but I dearly want that Department to back up parental choice and not to fine parents; not to penalise academic success; and to allow parents living within a reasonable distance of a school to get their youngsters ferried to that school. In some rural areas, it is very dangerous even to attempt walking or cycling on the roads.
I want the discretion removed. I want every youngster to be put on the same level, so that parents can choose a school within a reasonable distance in their own best interests without being penalised. I do not want the local authority to use them as cash cows to make up the shortfall because it will not make difficult decisions in other areas.
I plead with the Minister not to let this situation drag on. Let us help the local authorities to make the decision by removing the discretion, and let us ensure that people have full parental choice about where they send their youngsters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I have a great interest in this motion and I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) for securing this debate. In Glasgow this afternoon, there are people outside Glasgow City Chambers protesting at the cuts to bus services within the Glasgow city area. Glasgow City Council has decided to raise the qualifying distance for free bus passes in the city from 1.2 miles to 2 miles for primary school pupils, and from 2.2 miles to 3 miles for secondary school pupils. Those are quite considerable distances, especially for primary one pupils who will be starting school, aged five, come August.
I may not be able to refrain from being partisan in my comments today, because that choice has been made as a result of austerity programmes and cuts being made here, then passed to the Scottish Parliament and down on to councils. Councils have a difficult choice to make in coming to these decisions.
In Scotland, we also have a slightly less complex picture of schools, with fewer choices for pupils. Although Glasgow has catchment areas that can be complex, by and large children go to local schools of their choice in the catchment area; they do not often have to travel past a school they want to go to, to get to the one they have a place at.
Glasgow City Council’s decisions on changing the cost of bus passes—putting that back on parents—could cause serious difficulties for parents who cannot afford to pay for one. If their parents cannot afford it, children will have to walk significant distances, across busy roads and perhaps through industrial estates and derelict areas. If that is a daunting prospect in our glorious Scottish summer, what will it be like in winter time? In Scotland it is often dark on leaving the house in the morning and dark when coming back in the afternoon. It is a pretty grim thought.
Parents are advised by Glasgow’s education department that children should be accompanied—and of course, young children should be accompanied. But that causes serious difficulties for parents with more than one child who have to take their children to different places in the morning. There may be drop-offs at a nursery in one area, at a primary school in another and perhaps even at a secondary school, too. It is practically impossible for parents to make all those journeys.
The level of car ownership in Glasgow is low, particularly in deprived areas, where there is greater reliance on bus services. In 2012, only about half of households in Glasgow had access to a car. Bus transport is important for families and a lot of people without access to a car, because there is no other option for them other than using public transport.
The Labour council administration has made several attempts to introduce the proposal I have mentioned, but it has been rejected by the people and eventually rolled back on by the council; I hope that this time the council sees sense and finds the money elsewhere. More significantly, the proposal means that Glasgow City Council is reneging on promises it made during city school closures in the past, when lots of schools were closed or merged: parents were reassured about transport costs and told that school bus passes would be provided so that children could get to the schools. That was in 2008. Now parents find that the council has reneged on that promise and they are facing serious costs for school transport. That is unfair and will lead to further disadvantage for children in many parts of the city—areas with food banks and areas of multiple deprivation—who are already suffering from significant poverty. People trying to get several children to school face a disproportionate cost. It is deeply unfair that the cost of transport is falling on families at this time.
I understand that some rules about qualifying distances come from a House of Lords ruling in 1986. If that is so, it is time for that to be revised; something decided so long ago that is affecting people now is surely ripe for revision. Things have changed—far more cars are on the road and our cities are much busier, with heavier goods vehicles moving across them. We need to be mindful that young children, some of whom may want to walk to school, will find a great deal of traffic on the roads.
I support this debate. There should be further action on and consideration of this matter, particularly in respect of Scotland, where we have a slightly different situation, with children trying to go to their local schools and parents trying to get them there. We could do a lot to help parents in this situation, including looking again at the qualifying distances to find out whether something better could be put in place.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing the debate. I endorse all the remarks he made in his eloquent, articulate speech. His debate is timely: only this morning, I received an email from a parent in my constituency asking for my views on the school transport proposals. I should explain that Warwickshire County Council has, like Lancashire County Council, embarked on a consultation on changes to the supply of school transport for children whose parents do not choose their closest school. The consultation opened on Tuesday and runs until 17 September. If the proposals are adopted, children who enter secondary school this year or in September 2016 will not be affected, but those who start in September 2017 will be—by exactly the changes that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley spoke of.
In Rugby, the issue is grammar schools. My hon. Friend spoke about the impact on parents who wish their children to attend faith-based schools, single-sex schools or grammar schools. In Rugby, we have retained a selective system and in that respect are relatively unique in east Warwickshire. We have spectacular grammar schools in Lawrence Sheriff school, of which I am proud to be a product and therefore have a vested interest in, and Rugby high school, where my daughter is a pupil. We also have a bilateral school, Ashlawn school, which has a grammar stream alongside the secondary modern stream. Those schools are very popular with parents. An enormous number of children sit examinations to secure places there, and some parents move to Rugby simply to gain access to its schools.
The email I received this morning is from a parent who lives in the village of Binley Woods, to which I also have a connection because I grew up there. I travelled from Binley Woods to Lawrence Sheriff school in Rugby every day—a journey of about 8 miles. The email says:
“My son is due to attend Lawrence Sheriff School in September.”
My constituent’s son will not be affected by the proposals because they will not take effect for her son’s entry. However, there might be a concern if Warwickshire County Council makes changes similar to those that Lancashire is considering. What would happen if her son goes to the grammar school in September and a change is made thereafter? If any county council makes such a change, I hope that children who entered schools before the change will continue to get discretionary support.
My hon. Friend drew attention to an absurd example in his constituency, and I will give the Minister another. My constituent tells me that the allocated non-selective school for children who live in Binley Woods is Bilton school. That is a very good school that I visit regularly, but it is 8 miles away. Lawrence Sheriff school is just as far away. We have an absurd situation where a child who does well in a selective exam and goes to the appropriate school for their abilities—the school that will bring them on best in life—will have their travel paid for if they choose to turn down a place at the grammar school because the secondary modern, Bilton, is closest. However, if the child, having worked hard, takes the place they have secured at the grammar school, their transport will not be paid for. That is absolutely crazy and cannot happen.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue of students from low-income backgrounds. Warwickshire County Council’s policy states that the discretionary payment would continue to apply to families with relatively modest means, whether or not Warwickshire makes the change, but my concern is the parents who fall short of that category. There is something of a cliff face here. For a parent, the cost of paying for transport to a grammar school is conceivably a reason for their child not to take up a place there.
I attended a grammar school and am a great supporter of retaining our grammar schools. I sat in a class with fellow pupils from ordinary backgrounds, with parents who were engineers, electricians or worked in cement factories. Those pupils took advantage of their grammar school education and went on to do well in life. There is a grave danger of putting a barrier in people’s way by denying them the opportunity to access the excellent education that our grammar schools provide. I join my hon. Friend on this issue. I have made my views clear today and will make my own representation to the consultation.
Will the Minister consider extending the statutory requirements to include parents who wish their child to go to a school other than the nearest one? Will he also comment on the absurd situation where two schools are almost exactly the same distance away and transport is paid for a pupil going to one but not the other?
Is my hon. Friend somewhat suspicious, as I am, of such consultations? Lancashire, too, had a consultation. There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of people would say, “We prefer the system to carry on as it is and that the county uses its discretion.” Irrespective of how persuasive I know my hon. Friend and his constituents can be, my suspicion is that the consultation will end up saying, “Well, I’m sorry, we have to save the money. They do this in Lancashire and several other places, and we’re going to force people to pay.”
My hon. Friend makes a fair point about consultations. I will, however, be making representations and I will encourage the parents whom I come into contact with in my constituency to make representations to Warwickshire County Council in the same way. We understand the pressure on local government finance and it is entirely right for local authorities to look wherever they can to avoid excessive expenditure—to get more for less and to spend taxpayers’ money wisely—but not in a situation such as this. I am horrified on behalf of bright and capable children from households just outside the category eligible for support; the measure might act as a disincentive against such youngsters coming forward, putting their name in for the selection exam and getting an education that could enable them to do well later in life.
I will take the consultation at face value, and I will continue to lobby county councillors in Warwickshire so that they know and understand the possible consequences. I am pretty certain about our representations during the consultation.
I apologise for being late to this excellent debate. The Select Committee on Education has not yet been formed, but I suggest that this issue is one that it might well consider in due course, in the context of proper choice of schools and ensuring value for money.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing this important debate. I doubt whether a single Member has not at some time or other come across the vexed issue of school transport, usually at some kind of advice centre.
I will quickly cover what I understand to be the duties and powers of the local authorities in England to provide home-to-school transport under the Education Act 1996, as amended; I am sure that the Minister will confirm this. The “Home to school travel and transport guidance” for local authorities provides further clarification. The guidance was updated recently—only in July last year—and it covers the statutory duties that a local authority must abide by when making home-to-school arrangements. It also provides local authorities with advice on discretionary powers to make provision for children where there is no statutory obligation; the hon. Member for Ribble Valley focused on that point.
The guidance applies to the vast majority of schools—community, foundation, voluntary, non-maintained and special schools, referral units, maintained nurseries, city technology colleges, city colleges for the technology of the arts, academies, free schools and university technology colleges. An independent school can also be covered if that school is named in the child’s education, health and care plan, so the guidance is pretty comprehensive.
Three main issues affect the arguments about the provision of school transport. First, there is the cost. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley and I might not have identical views, but we all heard his point about that issue. I am concerned that the cost is borne increasingly by impoverished local authorities. Secondly, there is the allocation and provision of school places, which seems to be resulting in an ever-increasing number of children in some parts of the country having to travel substantial distances to school. Finally, there is the question of safety and the emphasis on motor transport rather than walking or cycling. That point was alluded to by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
As the pressure on public spending intensifies, many local authorities have found themselves facing funding reductions of about 37% over the period 2010-11 to 2015-16. Many hon. Members will recognise that those cuts are not applied fairly across the board, with reductions that can vary from 5% to 40%. Needless to say, councils with the greatest needs and deprivation, such as my own in Birmingham, are required to take the largest share of the cuts. It is hardly surprising in those circumstances that local authorities are finding it harder to provide school transport. The Public Accounts Committee report of 28 January this year warned that further cuts might undermine the viability of not just optional services, but even some statutory ones.
When it comes to school transport, that is exactly what is happening. It is often a case of local authorities tinkering with the distance rules as a means of excluding people. In essence, there is an attempt to save costs. Schools have plenty of other pressures, not least the pensions issue that is looming for the Minister, but they are sitting on quite large reserves. The Department for Education’s figures show that 4,400 academies, as of March 2014, had reserves of £2.47 billion; some way behind are the 18,700 local authority maintained schools, which had reserves of £2.18 billion.
I meet plenty of local authority leaders who ask me why schools, given that they are sitting on these reserves, should not pay for or at least contribute to the transport costs, while local authorities are facing such cuts.
I am also a former school governor. I acknowledge that there are other pressures in schools. I was pointing out that they are sitting with reserves. Local authorities have largely been encouraged by the Secretary of State to use up theirs.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the problem, with which I totally sympathise, of parents being asked to pay £500. I do not know whether he saw the recent article in the Bournemouth Echo; I am sure he is an avid reader of it. It highlighted the plight of parents whose children attend the Parkfield free school. The school was set up and is now having to move to a more satisfactory base. Unfortunately, its new location is not particularly well served by public transport. There is a business willing to provide a school bus service, but at a cost of £650 to the parents. Neither the school nor the local authority feels able to subsidise that transport cost. When I read about that and as I listened to the hon. Gentleman, I wondered whether he was simply describing the shape of things to come.
Given the importance of getting children to school safely, I wonder whether the Government need to look again at the guidance, even if it was reviewed only last year, and at the funding arrangements. As to the suggestion that we might perhaps extend the travel distance or cut some local authority officers’ salaries, that might be one approach, but perhaps the Minister could also consider whether it is right for the duty to rest solely with local authorities.
We all tend to look a bit nostalgically back to the time when many of us would have walked to school, but at that time, of course, the concept of a local school was common. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to problems of choice and locality, and the confusion over preferences and allocation of places. I certainly recognised what he was describing, but I suggest that the pressure on school places results largely from the imbalance in current provision, which results directly from Government policy. It has resulted in additional capacity in some areas and insufficient places in others, often in areas with the highest numbers of children.
Some Members, including the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), have spoken of the barriers to children’s attendance at grammar schools and other schools of their choice, and that is certainly happening. In other cases, the capacity argument means that children are sometimes forced to travel great distances to school.
I know that the Minister is fond of reading the Daily Mail; in March, it reported on a mother from south London who complained that she was forced to drive her son 25 miles to his current school because she cannot obtain a place at the local school, which is down the road and round the corner. We hear stories repeatedly about children who must make journeys involving several buses, after they fail to get a local place. That pressure is added to by admissions policies that often result in children in the same household attending different schools. Again, that is a point to which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central drew our attention.
Every year at around this time, I am inundated at my advice centres with parents who have experienced the problem of not getting the school of their preference. Can it be right that a five-year-old is expected to make a two-and-a-half mile taxi journey to school, because he cannot get a place at the school nearest to where he lives? What assessment has the Minister made of the pressure on school places and the distance that children must travel? Does the situation mean that, whatever the arguments about academies or free schools, we need a more rational planning arrangement so that we have more school places where they are needed?
It is worth noting that, under the guidance, local authorities are obliged to provide free transport where there is no safe walking route, however close to the school the child may live. There cannot be many of us who have not witnessed the traffic problems around local schools at the start and end of the school day—traffic problems largely generated by parents who not only want to drop off and collect their children, but want to park as close to the school gate as possible.
I was told recently about an incident at one school in my constituency. A parent managed to knock down a child as she attempted that manoeuvre. Fortunately, no serious damage was done, but the stressed driver, rather than apologising immediately, got out of her car and castigated the child for not paying sufficient attention while she was trying to park. That pressure around the school gate is making life far too difficult for too many children.
I note that more than 27% of parents now automatically drive their children to school; 23% of cars on the road at peak times are taking children to or from school, despite 19% of school journeys being under a mile—a distance that I am told people can comfortably walk in about 20 minutes, even if they are not trying very hard.
Clearly, we need to give much more thought to how to create a safer environment in the immediate vicinity of schools and what the Government can do to help to deliver a sensible cycling and walking strategy, as proposed by the Living Streets charity. At a time when we are rightly concerned about childhood health and obesity, it is remarkable how few children walk to school. I am very impressed by Brake and other road safety charities, which have been calling for safe travel zones around our schools. That approach covers speeding traffic, crossings, inconsiderate parking, and cycling and walking. In that context, I welcome the Government’s target of 55% of five to 10-year-olds walking to school, but we will not achieve that without deliberate and specific action. Can the Minister say what he has in mind?
I conclude by asking the Minister to look again at the guidance and whether schools, local authorities and others could be encouraged to share the burden of the cost of school transport. I have given up hope of local authorities getting fair funding deals, but his own Back-Bench colleagues are now asking him to look at this issue. Can he look at the provision of places and the possibility of a more rational planning framework and tell us what parental choice means in this day and age if parents are not able to send their children to the school of their choice, for the reasons that his hon. Friends state? Finally, can the Minister tell us what steps he has taken regarding safer, healthier alternatives for getting children to and from school?
The Minister has a lot to get his teeth into, and the debate is due to end at 4.30 pm. Actually, that is quite a long time, but if he is minded to take up most of it, could he leave a couple of minutes at the end for Mr Evans to respond?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I will try to squeeze my remarks into the remaining time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing the debate and on his excellent and compelling opening speech. He is a strong advocate for his constituency on a range of issues, and this is another example of that advocacy. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on their contributions, in which they cited their own constituency issues.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) was unwise to talk about school places planning, given that the previous Labour Government eliminated 200,000 primary school places when it was absolutely clear that the birth rate was increasing. One of the first things that the coalition Government had to do was to double the spending on creating new school places at a time of enormous constraint on the public finances. Over that period, we have spent several billion pounds on providing more school places to make up for the backlog that we inherited in 2010.
In case the Minister misunderstood me, I point out that I am not disputing whether the Government are creating more places; I am talking about the problem that they are creating by giving us over-capacity in one area and insufficient places where children are living. That is the difficulty; it is about the planning, not the number.
But of course the planning is easier if we do not have to catch up on a huge deficit in school places.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley has consistently championed the practical importance of school transport to children and their parents in his constituency. Where schools are beyond reasonable walking distance, parents should be entitled to expect the local authority to support transport arrangements. That rightly remains a statutory duty on local authorities. This afternoon, my hon. Friend has highlighted the impact of local authorities’ decisions, in the context of a tight fiscal position, to consider the availability of transport to schools that are the parents’ first choice but that the local authority deems are not the nearest suitable school.
The Government are committed to securing a good school place for every child. Today, more than 1 million more children attend good or outstanding schools than in 2010, and 260 new free schools set up by local charities, trusts and groups of parents are offering education that meets the needs of their communities. Additionally, in the previous Parliament, the Government spent more than £5 billion in funding local authorities to create new school places, and we have announced a further £3.6 billion over the next three years. The sponsored academies programme has turned around 1,154 underperforming schools over the past five years, ensuring that more pupils benefit from the highest standards of education.
Parents make few choices for their child that are more important than the choice of which school they attend and, thanks to our reforms, in many cases it will increasingly be the nearest and most conveniently located school. Some parents, however, might decide that their child’s education would best be served by attending a school further away from home because the performance of the nearest school is not yet good enough or because of considerations about a school’s specialism, ethos, faith status—my hon. Friend alluded to that—or, in some areas, whether it is academically selective, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide free transport for pupils in compulsory education at their nearest suitable school if it is beyond the statutory walking distances. Those thresholds, as has been said, are 2 miles for children under the age of eight and 3 miles for those aged eight and above. Under the universal statutory duty, “suitable school” is taken to mean the nearest qualifying school with places available that provides education appropriate to the child’s age, ability and aptitude. If a child has passed a grammar school entry test, for example, the local authority would not necessarily deem other, nearer schools unsuitable.
All local authorities have an additional duty to enable children from low-income family backgrounds to access a wider range of schools, including faith schools. That duty is known as “extended rights” and attracts national funding worth almost £20 million in this financial year. The extended rights policy helps children from low-income groups for whom a lack of affordable transport might act as a barrier to choice, thus enabling some of the most disadvantaged pupils to secure fair access to a wider range of schools. Children are eligible for extended rights if they are entitled to free school meals or if their parents are in receipt of maximum working tax credit. Where those criteria apply, pupils are given additional financial support towards school transport.
The policy amends the statutory walking distances, so that local authorities must provide free transport for such pupils where the nearest suitable school is beyond 2 miles if the pupil is over the age of eight but below the age 11; beyond 2 miles but within 6 miles for pupils aged 11 or over and there are not more than three suitable nearer schools; or beyond 2 miles but within 15 miles for pupils aged 11 or over who are attending the nearest suitable school on the grounds of religion or belief. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley said, the policy does not apply to children whose parents do not qualify for extended rights. Although parents do not enjoy a specific right to have their children educated at a school with a religious character or at a secular school, or to have transport arrangements made by their local authority to and from such a school, the extended rights policy includes the nearest suitable school on the grounds of religion or belief up to 15 miles, as there are often fewer faith schools within a reasonable distance. Even if children do not have a statutory entitlement to free home-to-school transport, local authorities have a discretionary power to provide free or assisted transport if they believe it necessary and local funding is available.
Lancashire County Council has historically provided free home-to-school transport to catchment area schools in Ribble Valley, regardless of whether they are the nearest school. Nationally, expenditure on home-to-school transport currently totals some £1 billion, and approximately £600 million of that is spent on transport for pupils with special educational needs. The total figure has remained broadly consistent over the past three financial years, although the proportion allocated to special educational needs transport shows a gradual increase over that period.
Lancashire County Council’s total expenditure on home-to-school transport has remained broadly consistent with the slight reduction in the amount spent on special educational needs over the three-year period. I understand that from September 2015, as my hon. Friend has explained, Lancashire County Council will introduce a package of measures to reduce its home-to-school travel costs, one of which is to remove the county-wide discretion to pay travelling expenses to catchment area schools when there is a nearer school. For new pupils starting this September, the local authority will fund transport only to the nearest school. Those changes are being phased in, and a child who started at a school under one set of arrangements will continue under those arrangements. For some parents who wish to send their child to a religiously designated school, their chosen school may not be their nearest. In that case, Lancashire County Council requires parents to contribute towards the overall cost of transport.
Where possible, I urge local authorities, including Lancashire County Council, to consider preserving discretionary school transport support for disadvantaged pupils and to consult widely about any plans to change arrangements. Good practice suggests that when parents are asked to pay all or some of the costs of non-statutory transport provision, low-income families who are not eligible for the extended rights should not have to pay. That is good practice, although it is not compulsory under law.
My hon. Friend asked about schools that back on to each other, citing the example of the Catholic school along a ginnel—I think that was the word he used—from the school whose students were entitled to free school transport. I urge the local authority to be reasonable and consider the issue in the context that my hon. Friend so ably explained. I make the same point to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby about the example that he cited from Binley Woods, with the Lawrence Sheriff school and the grammar school under Warwickshire County Council. I know that he has responded to the consultation, which is ongoing.
The Government encourage more pupils to cycle or walk to school, particularly in urban areas. We have set an ambition to increase the percentage of schoolchildren aged five to 10 who walk to school to 55% by 2025, and we have made a long-term funding commitment of more than £400 million for cycling and walking available to every local authority in the country until 2021. To cite one example, Darlington Borough Council has encouraged a shift away from cars to more sustainable methods under the brand Local Motion. Central Government have provided funding for the project since 2011. It ensures that schools, young people and their families receive relevant information to enable them to choose sustainable travel options to get to and from school. As a result, the cycling rate among secondary school pupils in that local authority area has increased from 1% to 7%.
I am interested in what the Minister is describing. Am I right in thinking that local authorities are not obliged to tie that funding to travel to school plans and that some local authorities can choose to spend it in other ways? If so, would it not make more sense to require them specifically to take the travel to school issue into account when spending the money?
We believe in local discretion. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley argued that we should remove that discretion and the hon. Gentleman is hinting that he would like to remove some of it, but the Government’s philosophy has been that local authorities should have discretion to spend that money as they see fit, to respond to local circumstances. That has been the policy for many years. We believe that they are best placed to determine how resources should be used in the areas that they serve and to balance the demands of a broad range of discretionary travel against their budget priorities. If we were to remove this discretion from local authorities’ responsibilities, it would hugely increase the number of eligible children at a substantial cost to the taxpayer. Therefore, it is much more practical and helpful to allow local authorities to continue to make these important decisions locally, but they still need to make the right decisions locally.
Many authorities are doing some very good work, for example, by encouraging schools to collaborate with one another and to use some of their own resources to fund transport. For instance, many academies are collaborating with other stakeholders and providers to offer discretionary transport to their schools. Hertfordshire, for example, will save between £5 million and £6 million per annum as a result of schools doing that. From September 2012 onwards, that local authority has only provided statutory home-to-school transport. It wanted to build capacity locally to encourage schools, community groups and commercial operators to provide home-to-school transport, and from September 2013 onwards, 130 routes to schools have operated without a financial subsidy from the council. So creative ways to provide transport are being used by innovative local authorities around the country. I urge both Warwickshire County Council and Lancashire County Council to look at such examples and at Darlington Borough Council to see whether they can learn from them.
The Government recognise that rural areas face particular transport difficulties. Therefore, the Department for Transport has provided £7.6 million in funding for 37 schemes to deliver improved local transport in rural and isolated areas. That funding will provide the essential first step for local authorities to implement service integration. People living in those areas will be able to benefit from integrated public transport, and local authorities will work with schools, hospitals and other local organisations to deliver local services more efficiently and at lower cost.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues on behalf of his constituents. A good local school within easy commuting reach is something that every parent has the right to expect for their child, and even as we continue to reduce the deficit, local authorities will continue to have a duty to provide school transport in many circumstances. And I share his view that discretionary services should be protected, wherever possible.
I thank the Minister for the generosity of spirit with which he has treated this debate. The way that we are praising one another sounds like a bit of a love-in, but I know that he is dedicated to ensuring that every parent is given choice, where possible, and that every child has a decent education, which is what we all want. Part of that, clearly, is the ability to choose.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) for illustrating some of the anomalies that exist in his own constituency, including the absurdity of the eight-mile range. I wonder whether anyone has measured it; one school may be an inch further away than another one. However, the fact is that parents are being penalised simply for choosing one school over another. I went to a selective school myself and I believe in a mix, so I am delighted to hear that his selective schools are doing very well.
As I said right at the outset, I am so lucky that all the schools in my patch are excellent. However, we do not want to get into the position, although I know that it is increasingly happening, whereby parents move to ensure that their youngsters can get into certain schools. We want all schools to be good, so that nobody has to move.
I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for illustrating the problems that face an increasing number of parents in Glasgow. There always seems to be a sense of blame-shifting, whereby somebody else is responsible and it is not really our fault, and people say, “We would prefer not to do it, but we have to. Our hands are tied.” However, the real victims in all this are the parents and their children, who increasingly have to put their hands in their pockets.
I am also extremely grateful to the shadow Minister for some of his comments. I would encourage youngsters to walk where they can, but sometimes in rural areas the road system is bad and the distances great, in particular if the school is not a primary—most villages tend to have a primary school, although in some cases they do not. For secondary education, the situation is clearly more difficult.
I was delighted to hear that the new Chair of the Education Committee has now put the subject on his shopping list of inquiries. Perhaps we will make some progress. The Minister talked about his belief that the Government’s philosophy is discretion. At the same time, he wants that discretion to be used to ensure that parents get choice, and therefore local authorities pay for school transport. If, however, in particular in the inquiry, it is demonstrated that local authorities are increasingly not giving any discretion whatever, but seeing the transport as an opportunity to dip into parents’ pockets—not supporting parents in their parental choice—I hope that that will be exposed and the Minister will look again.
We give discretion to local authorities up to a point on council tax, but we encourage them to freeze and certainly not to go above a certain rate, otherwise things are punitive for them. Perhaps we could look at that for local authorities if they are ignoring wholesale the discretion that they have and if they are imposing those transport costs on parents with—in Lancashire’s case, as I said—a 5% real-terms increase year on year, which can be financially painful for some parents. That is particularly the case for those parents just over the limit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby pointed out, for tax credits or free school meals, or if they have more than one child.
Clearly, the book is not closed on the subject. I hope that the Minister will keep a beady eye—I trust that he will—on the situation. I will ensure that Lancashire county council gets a report of today’s proceedings in Westminster Hall, so that it can see what the Government’s intention is and what they want the county councils to do. If the councils do not follow that intention, we will revisit the subject in the coming months.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the cost of school transport.