Wednesday 2 July 2014

Northumberland's Teenager Tax: Post-16 transport and rural disadvantage

So, there is something of a storm brewing at the moment over the Northumberland County Council's (NCC) decision to axe free travel to post-16 students from this September. This comes in just at the time that the law is changing to make it compulsory for children to stay on at school until the age of 18.

My position on this matter now is that the changes are wrong and are unfair, especially to those many pupils who live in rural or semi-rural areas for whom attending Northumberland College is not a viable option and whose local further education providers do not offer appropriate courses or courses of a high-enough standard. As a parent of a child at a high school that has recently been put into special measures by Ofsted, I can see the dilemma of where my children should study post-16 quite clearly.

NCC ran a sham consultation exercise, the results of which have been cast aside, and which was predicated on a charge of £450 rather than the eventual £600 (or more) they have saddled parents with. You can get the full details of the scheme here. In a nutshell, if there is a public transport service available that your child can use to get to school, then you will have to pay the full cost of that, however much that is. If there is no adequate public transport service then "for those students who use council contracted school transport services to attend their nearest appropriate educational establishment they would be required to pay £600". Note, "nearest appropriate educational establishment" doesn't actually mean that; the establishment has to be in Northumberland, i.e., there will be no help with getting your child to Newcastle or Gateshead.

Mea culpa

At this point I must offer a mea culpa. I am a member of the Broomley and Stocksfield Parish Council and back in the May meeting the council agreed its response to NCC's consultation on the proposed changes. At the time I agreed with the response that had been drawn up by the parish council (reproduced in full below) which, as you can see, did agree with the premise of a flat-rate charge. However, as is also patently obvious from the response, we were acutely aware of the potential problems such a scheme might bring, including the impact on rural children (see the sections highlighted in red).

Broomley and Stocksfield Parish Council's response to the NCC's consultation on charging for post-16 transport.

Question 4: Option 2 - reintroduce a flat rate charge for transport. This option is less likely to deter students from participating in post-16 education and is fair. It should also be relatively straightforward to administer.

Question 5: Yes, we agree that, given the Council’s budget, it is reasonable to make some charges for school and college transport.

Question 6: No, we do not agree that the usual arrangement should be that students pay the full cost of their travel unless this would cause them difficulties. We think it is reasonable, in a rural area with relatively limited pos-16 opportunities, for the Council to offer subsidised transport to students wishing to participate in post-16 education.

Question 7: Yes, we agree that any charging, as far as possible, should be based on a flat rate. We think that a flat rate is the fairest way to support students.

Question 8: We think that the flat rate should be around £450 p.a. £450 seems reasonable, and in line with other neighbouring authorities.

Question 9: Yes, we agree that any charging, so far as possible, should be based on families’ ability to pay. However, great care will need to be taken over how ability to pay is assessed. For instance, will families be means tested, and, if so, how will this be carried out? What arrangements will apply if two or more members of the same family are attending post-16 education at the same time?

Question 10: We cannot give a yes or no answer to this question. If the nearest establishment offers the course the student wants, and yet they choose to travel further to a different establishment, we think they should pay the excess cost, but if they are travelling further than their nearest establishment because that establishment does not offer the course they want, then we do not think they should pay the excess cost.

Question 11: Yes, we agree the the Council should pay more towards students’ travel if their nearest establishment offers a very limited range of courses. Students should not be discriminated against in terms of the choice of courses they have available to them.

Question 12: No, we do not agree that a student who chooses an establishment on the grounds of religion or belief should have to pay no more in charges than it they went to the nearest establishment to their home. We think the deciding factor should be the range of courses available, not a choice based on religion or belief.

Question 13: No further comments.
My reasons for agreeing with this response at the time were:

  1. In part, because our family has already been paying for school transport for several years as we live just inside the boundary past which bus travel is free,  the change did not, on the face of it, seem very great;
  2. NCC's proposed charging level was £450 and not the £600 they have since decided upon;
  3. Any charging should also take into account the impact on rural students who NCC have since clearly ignored.

I now regret that the limited support I had has given succour to NCC who have ploughed ahead with their dreadful scheme, and would like to state that I am categorically opposed to what NCC have implemented.

We responded to NCC's consultation in good faith but it transpires that the new scheme was rubber stamped by NCC's policy board only two days after the consultation period closed. Such a fast decision does not give the impression that the consultation was anything other than a sham that was designed to give the appearance of democratic scrutiny without actually taking people's views into account.

Attempts to reduce the charge to £450 (the amount that NCC consulted on) and to delay the changes until there are equal educational opportunities across Northumberland were rejected by the NCC Policy Board.

Furthermore, it also seems that there has been no meaningful impact assessment undertaken to look at how this new policy would affect students outside the metropolitan south east. This new policy means that our children may be faced with going to a local school that doesn't offer the courses they need and still paying a lot more to get there, or paying even more to go to an education provider that will allow them to achieve their goals. In my opinion, this is a seriously discriminatory move.

And to cap it all, the council leadership seems to want to hide away from the public by cancelling the July meeting of the full council meaning there would not be another meeting until September (talk about zombie administrations).

Whatever I might have thought about changes to transport costs before, the opaque way in which NCC has gone about its business and the patent unfairness and discrimination that are built into its new scheme mean that I must completely distance myself from this iniquitous venture that  has been dubbed Northumberland's Teenager Tax.

If you are (or will be) affected by these changes then you might want to join the Parents Against Decision to Scrap the Post-16 School Transport Facebook group and make your voice heard.

1 comment:

  1. I agree this is disgraceful behaviour and very underhand. As someone who is not directly affected by this I am ashamed that a council would make such an autocratic decision without due consideration to the responses of those who bothered to consult and discuss the issues. Whats the point of consultation if its all a fait accompli?