DCSIMG

‘It’s all about improving education in the county’

Council leader Grant Davey at the Queen's Baton Relay event in Alnwick.

Council leader Grant Davey at the Queen's Baton Relay event in Alnwick.

The leader of the council has said that funding changes have led to the responsibility for funding post-16 transport being shifted to schools and colleges.

Speaking to the Gazette to explain the Labour administration’s decision in depth for the first time, Grant Davey also said that he doesn’t think there will be many who have to pay for transport – barring those who go out of the county – once all the different initiatives are in place.

Last year, funding arrangements for educating 16 to 19-year-olds were changed so that it was based on a per-student basis, aimed at equality for schools and sixth-form colleges.

Plus, more money goes directly to schools, rather than to the local authority.

As previously reported in the Gazette, James Calvert Spence College in Amble is going to pay for transport for pupils not eligible for the council’s scheme, which will still support those from low-income backgrounds and with special educational needs.

Now, according to Coun Davey, both the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick and King Edward VI School in Morpeth are going to target bursary funds.

The 16 to 19 Bursary Fund is Government money given to local authorities, schools, colleges and other providers to give to young people who need financial support to stay in education.

Coun Davey said that the responsibility for transport has shifted to schools and colleges, ‘as the Government envisaged’.

“We had to work with the schools to let them know how the formula works,” he said.

“We don’t think there will be people paying for their transport. If they choose to go out of county, they will stay have to pay, but it’s about money not leeching out of the county.”

He explained that transport to schools was looked at following last year’s disastrous Ofsted inspections.

“The council received a dreadful series of reports last year pointing to a lack of investment in school improvement,” he said. “Due to severe Government cuts imposed on the county council, we could not pour money in to support change.

“But after looking closely into funding for schools we found that £28million had leached out of Northumberland in the last five years to out-of-county further-education establishments through a feather-bedded post-16 transport scheme that was costing us over £3million a year to fund.”

He referred to one case where a group of young people were taking daily trips to college in a taxi with an annual bill of £37,000, while more than 100 had been given unlimited rail passes costing more than £4,500 a year.

“We know we have to strike a balance of retaining students in the county while achieving cuts into the bargain,” he went on. “That’s why the policy board revised the scheme, leaving almost £1million in to protect those most in need.

“Since we took that decision, and it was not one we took lightly, we’ve worked tirelessly with the county’s schools and Northumberland College to resolve the introduction of change and keep more post-16 pupils in the Northumberland education system, to slow the haemorrhaging of funds out of the local education system and the economy.”

However, an extraordinary meeting of the council, to discuss a motion by the Conservatives to review the decision, takes place tomorrow at 9.30am.

It will be preceded by a protest at County Hall by parents, organised via a group on Facebook, against the cut.

Last month, the decision to call off the full meeting of the county council, planned for Wednesday, July 2, due to a lack of business, sparked anger from opposition politicians and parents alike.

A Labour group spokesman claimed that cancelling the meeting would save the taxpayer £18,000 and that no motions nor questions were submitted by opposition parties and the decision to end free post-16 transport had already been taken effective May 31.

When the Tories began to call for tomorrow’s extraordinary meeting, Labour responded by saying it was likely to cost the taxpayer £40,000, although yesterday Coun Davey said that the figure was nearer £80,000.

He also said that under the Local Government Act, the full county council cannot alter a decision made by the policy board. This was echoed by the council’s head of paid service, Steven Mason, in a confidential letter to members, seen by the Gazette.

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS BEING ASKED OF THE COUNCIL BY PARENTS:

Does the leader of the council believe the statutory consultation on the introduction of post-16 travel charges to be value for public money as all of the responses and comments heard were entirely ignored by the policy board in making their decision?

To what extent did the Equalities Impact Assessment carried out by the council before implementation of this transport policy take into account the age of the student? Age is one of the ‘Protected Characteristics’ under current legislation and it will be the case very soon that these over 16s will be in compulsory education.

Can the leader of the council give us a full explanation as to how the £450 suddenly became £600 – an increase overnight of 33 per cent and does the leader of the council not have the first clue of the sudden and immediate financial difficulty of hundreds of families overnight across Northumberland (even at £450)? Many will have to pay not only once, but twice or even three times.

Why was the existing school transport provision not monitored? If the authority’s decision is based on the need to reduce £32million from its budgets in 2014/15 would it not have been possible to review the current provision with a view to making changes to the current use of transport providers?

Can you explain exactly how the post-16 transport policy fully complies with the Post-16 Statutory Guidance (DfE, Feb 14)? In particular, how it ensures that young people in rural areas are not going to be worse off financially because they may need to travel further to access education and training provision than their peers in urban areas; that NCC are paying a portion of the costs for all pupils (as implied by asking parents for a contribution to transport costs); and that any contribution is affordable for learners and their parents?

As parents have to bear the cost of transport charges regardless of whether their children stay within county or go elsewhere, how can this possibly be encouraging and supporting local schools and colleges within Northumberland?

How does the leader of the council expect parents to prepare financially when we are only getting letters now, July 7, a matter of days before the end of the school year? Why are the schools and council just in talks now, when we have to apply for September?

 

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