Post-16 transport cut to go ahead

The axing of free transport for post-16 students in Northumberland was approved this afternoon by the county council’s policy board.

Members of the Labour administration reiterated the budgetary situation in which the council finds itself and the need to make difficult decisions.

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.

Reacting to a proposal by the family and children’s services scrutiny committee, which met this morning and wanted to amend the proposal so that the current scheme was only removed ‘when equal educational opportunity exists throughout the county’, council leader Grant Davey added two additional recommendations.

The first related to the council playing an ‘active role’ in working to ensure that educational opportunities are improved for students in Northumberland and the second was about monitoring the situation on an ongoing basis.

During the debate, the arguments from Labour members focused on the ‘savage cuts’ imposed by the Coalition Government – which are front-loaded onto local government, according to Coun Robert Arckless – 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.

“This policy has had a detrimental effect on our educational establishments,” said Coun Ian Swithenbank. “Some people won’t want to hear that. It shouldn’t have been introduced, but it was.”

In response, Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid said that the Labour group should make up its mind whether it was against the policy due to the effect on the county’s school and colleges or whether it had to cut the scheme because of Coalition cuts. He also said that any decision or changes should have been held until September 2015 when education becomes compulsory until the age of 18 and there is likely to be changes introduced nationally from government.

Conservative leader Peter Jackson said: “You are actually going to enshrine in black and white some form of rural deprivation and discrimination. You have tried to paper over some of the problems, but I still think it’s a tax on young people.”

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.”

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 will 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.

Since the free post-16 student travel scheme was implemented in 2008, the number of students engaged in post-16 education has not increased, yet the costs to the council have increased to £3.3million per year. The average annual cost to the council of transport per student is currently in the region of £936 a year.

For more reaction to the decision, see next Thursday’s Northumberland Gazette.