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Travel to School: Rural Areas

Volume 752: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support is given to young people living in rural areas to enable them to travel to school or college.

My Lords, all local authorities must provide free transport to children with special educational needs or a disability who are unable to walk to school, and to children aged five to 16 whose nearest suitable school is more than two miles away for children under eight and more than three miles for those aged eight to 16. There is additional support for children from lower-income families. Students over 16 can benefit from a range of discretionary or subsidised travel from the local authority and local operators and from the 16-19 Bursary Fund.

My noble friend will be aware that young people have to stay in education or training to the age of 18 now. She will also be aware that 46% of local authorities have cut funding for bus transport. In rural areas, how does a young person who has to perhaps travel a bus journey of a couple of hours to their college, on an often infrequent service, afford these extra costs? Does she have any idea where this money could come from, as many of them now face crippling bills?

My Lords, it is clearly very important that young people attend college or school and we recognise that it can indeed be very costly for them to travel, especially in rural areas. Local authorities set out annually the arrangements for transport in their area. Typically, that is for young people to pay an annual fee—a fixed amount. I have a number of details of what is provided. It can be especially good value for those who live in rural areas and for particularly disadvantaged young people, as I mentioned, there is the bursary fund.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there are similar problems in cities, particularly for the young unemployed, who often have great difficulties finding the money to get to interviews that they have been required to attend to ensure they get their benefits? Given there is a possibility that benefits may be withdrawn from those over 18, is it not time to have a complete review of the way in which assistance with travel to work, to interviews, to college or to schools is given? There are many people in the country who are in receipt of benefits—I am thinking of people such as myself—who, quite frankly, do not need assistance with travel on public transport. We could have a fairer or more equitable distribution of the money, particularly for those who are unemployed or going to school or college.

We keep this whole area under close review. New guidance has just been issued to local authorities so that they work out with enormous care what is required in their area and assess the needs that the noble Lord has pointed to. He obviously points to an important area.

My Lords, the Church of England is deeply involved with hundreds of tiny rural schools in sparsely populated areas and is acutely aware of some of the financial difficulties that they face. When such a school has to close, what advice do Her Majesty’s Government give on the educational, financial and environmental issues—to do with sustainability—of transporting these pupils, sometimes very long distances, to the next nearest school?

I will write to the right reverend Prelate with details about what happens when these schools are closed. There is a special premium for rural schools of the type that he describes, which have fewer pupils than you might find elsewhere, but I will write with further details.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that since the Government abolished the education maintenance allowance and the adult learning grant, the problems young people in the 16 to 19 age group face in getting to college, training and apprenticeships have become much worse? As she said, the role of the local authority in supporting travel costs in particular is discretionary. Although some fund significant subsidies, others do very little. In fact, in the past few weeks alone, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Lancashire—all with extensive rural areas—have announced further cuts in their travel subsidies for young people. Why can the Government not ensure that all local authorities provide at least a minimum level of support for travel costs for young people, especially in rural areas, where costs are much higher, but also in urban areas, where there are also problems?

I do not accept what the noble Baroness said about the education maintenance allowance because the way that it is organised now focuses on the young people who are most at need and provides them with more generous support than was the case before. Therefore, a yearly bursary of up to £1,200 is available to young people from specific vulnerable groups. A number of these young people—roughly half—do indeed receive travel passes or tickets. The councils she mentioned still offer special discounts to students and young people even though in some instances they have increased the charges that they are making.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister might look at the supply side rather than the demand side of this equation. There are very strict rules about the operation of part-time buses and the collection of fares—all sorts of terrible regulations—which make it extremely difficult for communities to organise bus services to meet the needs which are quite obvious in rural areas.

My noble friend makes a good point. However, I would point him to the local authority guidance, which has just been reissued, because one of the things that local authorities need to do is to analyse what provision is there, what is needed and where the deficits might be.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of Lancashire County Council. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is in the Chamber: we introduced the first education maintenance allowances. Is the noble Baroness aware that I heard with some scepticism her reply that bursaries have replaced EMAs and that EMAs were too generous to young people who did not need it—none of which is true—and is she aware that in Lancashire the staying-on rate in areas such as Skelmersdale at the beginning of the 1980s shot up by 40% and those young people had to attend regularly and work hard?

The noble Baroness may have misunderstood or misheard what I said. What I emphasised was that the bursaries that are now given are more generous. They are targeted at those who are most vulnerable. She may very well feel that the others who do not now get the EMA may have a need that she identifies, but I am pointing out to her that the bursary is better targeted in that it is focusing on the most vulnerable and it is providing more to them, which I am sure noble Lords would support.

Following on from the right reverend Prelate’s intervention, does my noble friend agree that rather than closing rural schools it might sometimes make sense to bus the children from an overcrowded city school and take them out to the pleasant air of a country school so that they could enjoy the very good teaching that one often finds in small rural schools?

That is a novel and interesting idea and I should think the children would welcome that. But as I said earlier, we have special funding to try to keep open some of these rural schools. In doing my research for this, one thing that I was encouraged by was the fact that 48% of primary schoolchildren in Britain walk to school, and I think that is excellent.

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend, when looking at the review she talked about, could look at what has happened in north Northumberland. When the Liberal Democrats took over the council, they instigated free transport for those aged over 16. We have a very low level of take-up of further and higher education in this part of the country and I hope she will look at this because it increased the numbers of students who took up further education. I hope that, like me, she is rather concerned that now the council is being run by Labour, it is proposing to do away with this.

I will indeed take that example back. As I said at the beginning, it is extremely important to keep young people in education and training. Having just come back from India, I am well aware that we are part of a global situation, and we have to ensure that our children are as best educated and skilled as possible.