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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Can Cumbria's students take on even more expense?

Dan Varcoe chose to study unisex hairdressing at Carlisle College to learn a trade. “I want to make something of my life,” he says.

Rhiannon Griffiths photo
Rhiannon Griffiths

Rhiannon Griffiths, from Mealsgate, also 18, is doing a BTEC in business. She has applied to do level 3 from September and hopes to start her own business when she finishes.

The two 18-year-olds have been able to study at Carlisle College – and raise their aspirations – thanks to travel passes they receive from Cumbria County Council, part of the council’s ‘discretionary’ transport provision (as opposed to statutory transport the council must provide by law).

Now, the council has unveiled proposals to end this provision, claiming it could save £2m by no longer paying for transport for youngsters it has no statutory duty to provide.

The policy currently includes a transport grant to parents or carers of pre-school children attending nursery if the nearest nursery is more than two miles from home but most of the money – some £1.5m – pays for more than 4,800 students aged 16-19 to continue their studies.

A consultation period, when parents and students can register their views, was launched in February and ends next Friday.

Options being considered include charging students £350 per year and if the proposals go ahead they will have a far-reaching impact, affecting parents with children at nursery, students studying diplomas who have to travel to other schools as part of their course, and students in sixth form and in college.

Students at Carlisle College are worried, especially as the news comes at a time when the weekly Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) payment of £10 to £30 for the poorest 16 to 19-year-olds who want to stay in education is being scrapped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove this week announced details of its £180m replacement but student union leaders in Cumbria say it will not provide the help the county’s teenagers need.

Shannon Hay, from Penrith, is doing level 3 hairdressing. “I travel in three times a week. If they stop the bus pass I wouldn’t be able to continue the course, it would cost me around £7 a day and you need your dinner money on top of that,” says the 16-year-old. “They are stopping the EMA too. It’s terrible.”

Robert Potts, 18, from Longtown, says: “I feel a bit anxious about it. I know people who come from west Cumbria who rely on the bus too.

“A lot of people came to Carlisle College from rural places and I don’t see how it’s logical. People can’t get in by other means. It’s a pretty big flaw when you think about it.”

Anger has been growing among parents with children in Year 11 who could now be looking at paying for their child to go to sixth form or college.

In a letter to the The Cumberland News this week, Catherine Bancroft from Brampton says that, as a parent of three children including twins, she will be looking at a cost of £1,750 over three years.

“I understand the books have to be balanced, but my family now have two choices.

“Firstly send our children to sixth form and university, but fail to balance our family books or the children have to leave school and find work.

“I had hoped society had developed beyond this choice and that bright children from ordinary backgrounds could still aspire to further their education.”

Alan Rutter, secretary of the Cumbria branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), agrees the extra cost could price education out of the pockets of the less well-off – which goes against government plans for all young people to stay in education or training until they are 18, from 2015.

“It’s perverse, especially with the EMA also being stopped. All in all 16-to-18-year-olds are going to get a rough deal and could potentially be denied access to education, especially in an area like Cumbria because there are such remote communities,” says Mr Rutter.

“We will obviously express our concern.

“We hope there are ways of avoiding this but the budget set by central government is so horrendous that local authorities have been left with little choice.

“The government will say it is up to local authorities how they spend the budget, but somewhere like Cumbria suffers because of the terrain we have.”

Steve Johnson, deputy head at Ullswater Community College, has written a letter to parents and students urging them to take part in the consultation exercise.

“I am completely opposed to it and think it’s absolutely disgraceful.

“A Year 11 student is now looking at £9,000 in fees to go to university and £350 a year to get on a bus to get to school or college to do A levels,” says Mr Johnson.

“The Government wantsto make 18 age a legal requirement for education and training, how can people access that if they live in an area where there is no transport?

“Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Ullswater have the biggest catchment area in England, we serve a massive area. Here the infrastructure is already there – 28 buses come to the school every day and most of these buses are 52 to 53 seaters.

“They’ve got to run legally for kids aged between 11 and 16. Charging kids over 16 is a tax to balance the council coffers.

“It’s unfair and seems ludicrous to me that they will be charged to occupy an empty seat.

“The Government wants to make it a legal requirement for young people to stay in education and training until they are 18 – how can this work if they live in an area where there is no transport?”

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