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Axe falls on free travel for students

Many students access courses at Newcastle College via Berwick railway station

Many students access courses at Newcastle College via Berwick railway station

Students from north Northumberland could be left out of pocket by council proposals to axe free post-16 bus and rail passes.

The Labour-led administration at Northumberland County Council is reviewing its post-16 transport policy as it attempts to make £130m savings over the next four years.

One of the options it is considering is complete withdrawal of all discretionary travel provision, while another is the introduction of a charge, possibly £450 a year.

It could also restrict provision of transport to the nearest educational establishment, which would be a blow to those from the north of the county who access courses in Newcastle.

Councillor Ian Swithenbank, policy board member for streetcare and environment, said: “The council needs to make savings of more than £130m in the next three years.

“We must consider what is fair and sustainable at a time when we are making tough decisions in all service areas.”

However, the possible withdrawal of support for students has been condemned by the Lib Dems, who warn it could damage the education prospects of youngsters in remote rural areas.

Julie Pörksen, prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Berwick, said: “Labour’s plans to charge for school transport for over 16s are outrageous, especially when education is to be compulsory until age 18. Their actions mean families face more hardship and low income families will really struggle to send their children to school.

“Young people in our remote and rural areas have as much right to get to school or college for free as those who are lucky enough to live close enough to walk.

“I cannot believe Labour are taking such a backward step and making a young person’s ability to access the right education depend on how much money their parents earn. We should be doing everything we can to help our young people to get the best education possible.”

Ex-council leader Jeff Reid added: “This is the time of year when young people are making choices on their education which will affect the rest of their lives. They need to be able to choose the best course and college for their needs, not have their options cruelly cut off by the council.”

Northumberland is the only county council in England that still maintains a free student travel scheme for post-16 students according to a survey by the Rural Access to Learning Group.

The authority provides free post-16 transport to the nearest educational establishment providing the student’s chosen course, this may be outside of Northumberland. It also provides free travel to the nearest denominational school where evidence of faith is provided.

“Currently 3,600 students receive free travel which is an increase of more than 300% in student numbers in the last five years.

“We now provide free travel for 51% of post-16 students and the cost of this has risen to £3.3m in 2013/14,” said Coun Swithenbank.

“As part of the budget setting process we are reviewing current post 16 (P16) and denominational transport provision and considering a number of proposals.”

In 2006, when Labour scrapped rail passes for students from Berwick travelling to Newcastle College and replaced them with a four hour round trip by bus, the number of students travelling for further education dropped from 48 to three.

Campaigning led to the rail passes being reinstated, and free transport for all post-16 students was introduced by the Lib Dems in 2009.

 

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