VIDEO: Post-16 transport protest

Crowds of parents and students met outside an Alnwick school today to demand a U-turn on council cuts to post-16 transport.

Organised via the Facebook page, Parents Against Decision to Scrap the Post-16 School Transport, which has more than 500 members, the gathering saw more than 50 protesters gather outside the Duchess’s Community High School this afternoon. Others headed to the county council’s north area committee meeting in Longhorsley.

Opponents 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.

The protests come on the back of the axing of free transport for post-16 students in Northumberland. The controversial plan was approved at the end of last month by the county council’s policy board.

The decision to cut the funding, which will mean students have to pay full public-transport costs or a standard charge of £600, was voted through by seven votes to two.

Members of the Labour administration have 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 and the changes will affect one per cent of Northumberland’s households.

The current scheme will be retained for all post-16 students who continue their studies in September 2014. 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 or college.

Last week, 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 have 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.

“Forty-nine per cent of post-16 pupils already study ‘in county’ and it’s with reluctance that we have to revisit a policy which hasn’t changed since its introduction in 2008. Since then demand has increased by 323 per cent yet funding has fallen by a third. Those students who study outside the county have taken £28million with them, largely to Tyne and Wear colleges since 2008.

“While we are sympathetic to how the decision has affected families, we would point out that we will continue to protect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people and the ‘parachute payment’ will allow post-16 educational establishments to plan ways to get young people to their courses. These protections were not offered by the Coalition Government when they scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and tripled tuition fees.”

“We, of course, will work with the post 16 sector to make the new policy work fairly and effectively.”

For more from the protest, see Thursday’s Northumberland Gazette.