Schools minister asked to look into Northumberland students transport charges

Schools minister David Laws has been asked to look into Northumberland County Council's decision to bring back transport charges for students

Andrew Matthews/PA Wire Schools Minister David Laws
Schools Minister David Laws

The schools minister has been asked to look into a council’s decision to bring back transport charges for students.

David Laws has been asked to consider whether Northumberland County Council is “discriminating against rural students” following its recent decision to reinstate transport charges for 16 to 18 year olds travelling to schools and colleges with sixth forms.

Julie Pörksen, Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Berwick, has also urged the minister to consider whether the authority is “failing in its duty to ensure students can access post-16 education.”

The council’s Labour leaders have hit back at Mrs Pörksen, accusing her of “playing politics” while “staying silent” over the coalition government’s cuts to the authority’s budget.

Post-16 education transport charges were scrapped by the Lib Dems when they ran the council in 2008.

But Labour recently approved plans for a £600 travel charge for students attending their nearest educational establishments where public transport is not available.

Students who can travel on public transport would have to pay the full cost of their journeys. Exemptions would apply to young people already in post-16 education, those with special educational needs and those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest school or college.

Council bosses say they were forced to bring back charges as they have to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.

Yet parents, pupils and politicians from rural areas of the county have accused the council of discriminating against families in such areas, with over 1,130 joining a Facebook group and a protest staged outside an Alnwick school earlier this month.

Parents have asked council and Labour group leader Grant Davey for meetings to discuss their concerns, requests that have been refused due to his busy schedule.

Mrs Pörksen last night said: “It is outrageous that the Labour council will not listen to the people of Northumberland and choose to prioritise non-essentials in the council budget over accessible education for all post-16 students.

“Grant Davey is refusing to meet parents and his own constituents who are campaigning on this issue.

“You only really get one shot at school and college so for the council to sacrifice the opportunities for today’s 16 year olds is unacceptable.

“I believe charging £600 discriminates against students and families living in rural and remote areas.

“I have asked schools minister David Laws to look at the process of the introduction of these charges and I want him to consider whether Northumberland council is discriminating against rural students and whether the council is failing in its duty to ensure students can access post-16 education.”

Her request follows Conservative MP Guy Opperman’s call for local government minister Brandon Lewis to investigate the legality of the cancellation of a council meeting at which parents were to stage a further protest.

Coun Davey said: “We’ve said from the outset that we would have preferred not to scrap free post 16 travel but we have to save £130m over the next four years.

“Now it seems both Northumberland Tories and Lib Dems have demanded meetings with their respective ministers.

“Residents will rightly ask why they couldn’t make the same noise when their government stripped £130m from the council budget.

“I’m afraid that this is yet another example of opposition parties playing politics in the county but staying silent in Westminster.”

The council is still to respond to a request from its Conservative group for an extraordinary meeting in place of that cancelled.

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