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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

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Tynedale: Opposition to plan for a ‘teenager tax’

YOUNGSTERS sweating on whether to go into their further education could have their minds made up for them at the end of this month.

For Northumberland County Council’s policy board will decide whether or not to scrap free school transport for over-16s.

The decision could make all the difference to some people on whether to pursue further education.

Almost 1.000 people have petitioned the county council to retain free post-16 transport, but the controlling Labour group on the council claims that the figures on the service no longer add up.

A consultation exercise on the proposals ends a week on Monday, and while politicians say no decision has yet been taken, the writing seems to be on the wall for the service.

The council has already received two e-petitions and other paper petitions and letters seeking to retain the service, signed by 931 people.

Three options are being considered by the council: scrapping the transport scheme altogether; reintroducing a charge, which would probably be in the region of £430 per year; or only paying the costs of post 16 students attending schools or colleges within Northumberland.

In a report to the council’s petitions committee last week, the council’s executive director of place Barry Rowland said all local authorities had a duty to set out their arrangements for enabling the attendance of post-16 students at schools, colleges or other training establishments.

However, this duty did not include a requirement to pay the actual fares of the students.

The current scheme provides free transport for post-16 students who live more than three miles from the nearest further education provider that offers that student their chosen course.

Transport is normally provided for two years of further education study, though this may be extended in the case of students with special educational needs.

Post-16 students who live less than three miles from their school or further education provider must fund their own transport costs, unless there is no safe walking route available.

Mr Rowland said: “ When charges for post-16 transport were last in place in 2007/08 academic year the number of students on the travel scheme was in the region of 850 – 10 per cent of the post-16 student population.

“That number has now risen to 3,500, which constitutes half of all students in Post-16 education.

“The cost of providing transport for post-16 students now stands at £3.3m a year – over £900 per student per year.”

Mr Rowland acknowledged there was a risk of “reputational damage” to the council if the current scheme was changed to such a degree that it led to a reduction in student numbers going on to further education.

Once the consultation period is over, the policy board will make a decision at its meeting on May 29.

The proposals have already been condemned as a tax on teenagers by opposition parties, but they have been defended robustly by the Labour administration.

A Labour group spokesman said: “The Liberal Democrats have propped up a national coalition which has seen £359 per family cut from council services over the period since Labour came to office.

“Post-16 transport costs have soared with a 323 per cent increase since the introduction of free post 16 travel, but roughly half the students travelling choose to study outside Northumberland.

“That’s £28m lost to Northumberland's educational establishments.

“In crude terms, in 2008 it was a Labour Government that gave the county the capacity to make travel free and in 2014, it is a Con-Dem Government that has slashed the council budget by a third.”

The spokesman said it was “a bit rich” for the Liberals and Conservatives to complain about a teenage tax after breaking their promises on university tuition fees.

He added: “That has hit over 3,000 Northumberland students with a massive debt yet they want to stop a realistic and fair attempt to encourage more students to study in Northumberland.

“Residents will make up their own mind about the cynical and hypocritical ploy.

“We want to encourage more resources in Northumberland, not Tyne and Wear.”

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