Parents vow to continue their battle

Sue Patterson addresses post-16 transport protestors outside the Duchess's Community High School in Alnwick. Picture by Jane Coltman
Sue Patterson addresses post-16 transport protestors outside the Duchess's Community High School in Alnwick. Picture by Jane Coltman

Furious parents have pledged to continue their fight to force a U-turn on the decision to axe free transport for post-16 students.

Northumberland County Council’s policy board voted to cut the funding at the end of last month, which will mean students have to pay full public-transport costs or a standard charge of £600 to get to college or sixth form.

While there has been opposition to the proposals since they were announced at the end of last year, the anger seems to have snowballed since the vote on May 29.

A campaign group has been set up on Facebook – Parents Against Decision to Scrap the Post-16 School Transport, which had more than 600 members as of yesterday.

On Monday, a crowd of around 70 parents, students, councillors and politicians gathered at 5.30pm outside the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick to show their opposition to the loss of free post-16 transport.

That same evening, another group of parents attended the county council’s north area committee meeting in Longhorsley to voice their concerns.

But this is just the beginning for the campaign, as plans are in the offing for continued protests at future meetings as well as at County Hall in Morpeth, alongside emails and letters to council bosses.

The Labour administration, whose decision has been jumped upon by opposition councillors and politicians, has long reiterated the budgetary situation in which the council finds itself and the need to make difficult decisions.

Ending free transport for post-16 students will save £2.4million a year while the changes will affect one per cent of Northumberland’s households.

Plus it says that £28million has left the county as students used free transport to travel to study on Tyneside.

However, critics say that the charges are unfair when education until the age of 18 is about to become compulsory and that it discriminates against the rural areas.

As 15-year-old Wooler student, Rhiann Charters, pointed out on Monday, Alnwick is her local school and therefore she has to travel around 20 miles while others can walk. She described the cut as ‘disgusting’.

Another protester, Sue Patterson, from Seahouses, who has a son going into Sixth Form in September, even suggested how the county council could make up the budget shortfall.

Perhaps opening another can of worms given the political row on parking which ran for several years, she asked: “If the council has a deficit in its budget, why have they given everyone in the county free parking when it made millions of revenue?”

At the policy-board meeting when the decision was made, Lib-Dem leader Jeff Reid, who voted against the cut, made a similar point.

The impact on the revenue budget of free parking was estimated at £2.1million alongside a one-off implementation cost of around £150,000 – a total not dissimilar to the £2.4million being saved by scrapping free post-16 transport.

A Labour group spokesman said: “We understand that people will be upset about the change in policy, but we would point out that the Coalition Government, supported by local politicians from Lib Dems and Conservatives, has cut the council budget by a third with further cuts of a quarter up to 2017. This means tough choices.

“Our plan leaves a £900,000 ‘parachute payment’ to allow schools and colleges to work out a local solution to the post-16 transport issue.”

• The current scheme will be retained for all post-16 students who continue their studies in September. Special 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/college.