One of Northumberland’s most successful headteachers has warned that cuts to school buses could cripple county colleges.
Marcus Clinton, who was brought in as vice principal at Kirkley Hall college four years ago to turn the under-performing college around, has hit out at Northumberland County Council’s plans to scrap free transport for post-16 students.
He said the proposed cuts, which would save £2.4m a year from the council’s budget, would seriously jeopardise the progress that Kirkley Hall college, and others like it, have made.
“I was brought in four years ago to sort out Kirkley Hall and we’ve upped our student numbers from 300 to 800,” he said. “It’s now a sustainable college and 90% of our students are leaving the college and either going on to further education or employment.
“Most of our students come from rural Northumberland and it’s nearly impossible for them to get here without the free transport currently available.
“Northumberland is a vast and diverse county that is not easily accessible to many.
“These proposed transport cuts are hugely concerning because they will encourage young people to go and study in the city where they are on a train route.
“This could cripple our campus at Kirkley Hall, which would be devastating because we’ve made so much progress in recent years.
“All colleges have suffered budget cuts upwards of £1m recently. If a further fall in numbers is driven by transport cuts then colleges across the county will undoubtedly be at risk.”
Northumberland College is currently carrying out a £9m improvement project across its Kirkley Hall and Ashington campuses.
The college secured £3m from the Government’s Skills Funding Agency towards the ambitious revamp and matched the grant with £6m from its own funds to pay for the package of new build and refurbishments.
Mr Clinton said: “The college has invested a lot of money in both sites, so if we were to lose significant numbers on the back of these transport cuts, that would be a real blow.”
The proposals sparked Julie Porksen, who is the Lib Dems’ candidate for Berwick, to set up a petition calling for the retention of free school transport.
She said: “I believe every young person has the right to attend school or college up to age 18 for free. This basic right should be regardless of where they live, or how much money their parents have, everyone should have the same opportunity to get a good education.”
Northumberland County Council has to make savings of £65m over the next two years. A decision will be taken at the council’s policy board next week on a proposal to end free transport for students at college or further education.
Since the free travel scheme was introduced in 2008, the Labour-run council says the number of students engaged in higher education across the county has not increased, yet the costs to the council have increased to £3.3m per year.
However, the number of students claiming free transport has increased from 800 to 3,500 over the past five years.
A Labour group spokesperson said: “It’s clear that we have to look at all provision given the scale of coalition cuts to the council budget.
“The proposal which will go to policy board next week will safeguard the most vulnerable and will help support the sustainability of post 16 education provision in Northumberland.
“Under the Liberals proposals Tyne and Wear will continue to get a funding boost while Northumberland has to struggle by.”