Politicians have reacted with anger after the county council’s Policy Board voted to axe free transport for post-16 students.
Last Thursday saw a decision taken by seven votes to two to cut the funding, meaning students have to pay full public transport costs or a standard charge of £600.
The Family and Children’s Services Scrutiny Committee wanted to amend the proposal so that the current scheme was only removed ‘when equal educational opportunity exists throughout the county’, but Council Leader Grant Davey added two recommendations.
The first related to the council playing an ‘active role’ in ensuring that educational opportunities are improved, and the second was for ongoing monitoring of the situation.
During the debate, Labour members focused on the “savage cuts” imposed by the Government and the impact that free post-16 transport has had on Northumberland’s schools and colleges through students travelling out of the county for their education.
After the meeting Coun Davey said: “We do not make any cuts with relish. It is regrettable that we have to make any cuts, but we must balance our budget. Where we make cuts we will protect those in greatest need and continue to focus our resources on helping our county to grow. We will always do right by our communities.”
The cut will save £2.4million a year and provision will be made to exempt the most vulnerable groups, such as students with special educational needs or those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest appropriate school or college.
But Leader of Northumberland Conservatives Peter Jackson said: “I cannot believe that Labour is so willing to threaten the life chances of our young people with this teenage tax. This excessive Labour teenage tax on our students and their families will put many off furthering their education at all.
“The future prosperity of our county lies in the successful careers of our young people. Yet here we have a Labour-led council making the wrong choice.”
Liberal Democrat campaigner Julie Pörksen, who launched a petition against the cuts, said: “This decision shows a total lack of respect for students and their families in remote and rural areas of Northumberland.
“Labour claims to be concerned about the cost of living for people yet chooses to raise household costs by £600 a year for families with students.
“I am exceptionally disappointed and angry that the Labour council has chosen to ignore its own consultation and the views of local residents and decided not to support Northumberland’s students to be able to choose the school or college course that is right for them.”
Parent Julia Young, who organised a campaign in Longhorsley against the cuts, said: “We are very disappointed by the decision, particularly because of the impact on children from rural areas who seem to miss out on everything else as well. It just extends the inequalities.
“The support our campaign has had in Longhorsley has been great, but we need the bigger populations in Ashington, Cramlington and Blyth to come on board because it is a numbers game.
“I don’t know whether there is any way to change the decision, but it is a huge concern. I think a lot of parents just saw ‘post-16’ and didn’t realise the impact on them. My daughter is 11, but this is about our kids’ future.”