Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dalyell: What has been said today by the Minister's colleagues should be brought to the attention of those undertaking the studies and of the Treasury. Parliament's views should be taken into account.

Mr. Hanley: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance--indeed, I was about to mention that subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe(Sir J. Lester) mentioned the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, where the Chairman recently remarked on an apparent mismatch between the council's central role and its position in public expenditure terms. The Select Committee will be looking at FCO expenditure in greater detail later this month, and will then consider the council's position in relation to the diplomatic wing and the ODA as a whole.

Obviously, there is no point in my commenting on the transcript of the Select Committee's minutes, except to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I have read it, and we shall take it into account in the next few days. There is no point in my commenting in detail on the Chairman's remark before the Committee has completed its deliberations.

Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken most eloquently this morning about their support for the activities of the council, both at home and overseas, and their concern over the reduced funding of those activities. The debate will be read, and decisions will be complete by the end of May--I repeat that assurance for the benefit of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

Let me conclude by reiterating the Government's strong support for the British Council and its role in winning hearts and minds for Britain around the world. The council, like many institutions, is having to face up to a period of change. It will in future have a smaller UK base, and rely more on outside advice. There will have to be some reordering of priorities overseas.

Some of those adjustments may be painful, and we recognise that hard choices have to be made. But all organisations today face the problems of challenge and change, and the council has a long record of successful adaptation to new circumstances. I have no doubt that the council, with its extensive overseas network, will continue to play an important role in furthering Britain's prestige, influence and interests for many years to come. That is certainly the Government's intention.

I conclude by repeating that the council now has229 offices in 109 countries. When the Government took office, there were 108 offices in 79 countries. That is a record of achievement.

1 May 1996 : Column 1103

School Transport (Devon)

12.29 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Perhaps the most popular reform introduced by the Government since 1979 is that which enables parents to send their children to a school of their choice. That policy appeals to parents of all political persuasions and of none. I initiate this debate because, if the policy is to work in rural areas, the local education authority must operate a fair, humane and justifiable transportation policy. At present, the policy in Devon operates along the same lines as the Ritz hotel: we are all free to dine at the Ritz, provided that we can afford to do so. Increasingly, in Devon one must be able to afford to send one's children to the school of one's choice.

The LEA has adopted a school transport policy that makes a mockery of parents' right to choose--and I would argue that that is its intention. I shall set out the facts for the House. The law is clear enough: section 55(1) of the Education Act 1944 states that free school transport must be provided when a designated school is more than two miles away for a child under eight or more than three miles away for children over that age. That is the law as it stands at present. The problem is that, when parents in Devon choose to exercise their right to send their children to the school of their choice, the local education authority tells them that they must meet the transport costs, as the county will not.

When pressed about the matter, the LEA sets out two arguments. First, it says that it does not have enough money. Secondly, it says, "If you think we are bad, the previous Conservative administration was bad also." As to the latter point, the previous Conservative administration followed a similar policy which I criticised at the time, as I do now. However, there are significant differences in the behaviour of the previous Conservative and the present Liberal administration.

As there are many excellent schools in Devon in general, and in Teignbridge in particular, more parents want to exercise their choice not to claim that one school is better than another, but to say that a particular school is right for their child. Even though I criticised the behaviour of the previous Conservative administration, I admit that it did not go to the same extraordinary lengths as the current administration in defying parental choice. I shall return to that point later.

I must lay to rest the claim that the LEA policy is all about money. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment will address the grant settlements issue in general when responding to the debate, but at present the settlements are very generous compared with previous awards. The case is much more fundamental. This morning, I debated the issue on a local radio station. The Liberal spokesman who argued the case with me said that I was asking for all transport costs to be subsidised, no matter what choice parents made. He made the ludicrous statement that I had argued that, if a child living in Exmouth wanted to go to school in Plymouth, the county should meet the transport costs involved. It is complete nonsense; I have never said that.

My view is reflected by the parents who have contacted me. They do not want the local authority to provide extra money: they want the county to make the contribution that it would make in any event. In rural areas, designated

1 May 1996 : Column 1104

schools are often more than three miles away and there is a cost involved in transporting children to those designated schools. The scores of parents who have written to me, telephoned me, come to my surgeries or met me at public meetings in Teignbridge do not ask their fellow council tax payers to meet the extra cost that the county might incur. However, at the very least, they expect that the county will not profit from their desire to choose their children's education.

That is what is happening. When the county refuses to contribute what it would have paid if parents had sent their children to designated schools, it does not have to produce extra money--in fact, it makes a saving. It is important to stress that point. The parents to whom I have spoken and the teachers and the governors who have written to me do not want the county to meet the extra costs of transportation: they simply want the county to pay the money that it would contribute in any event.

The best way to illustrate the injustice and the inevitable motives behind the LEA policy is by giving some examples to the House. A local school has provided me with several such examples, but I shall refer to only three. The first concerns an older child who was to attend the King Edward VI school at Totnes, which is known as KEVICs. That is a designated school. However, the school was full that year, so the county sent that child to the South Dartmoor community college and paid the transport costs.

Two years later, a younger sister entered secondary education. She was to go to KEVICs, but her parents wished to send her to the same school as her sister. The parents were told that the county would not provide free transport and that they could apply for a concessionary place on the bus, amounting to £40 per term. However, that concessionary place can be withdrawn at short notice if an entitled child joins the school. If the parents cannot afford £120 per year, the only solution would be for the two children to attend different schools.

Another common example involves a group of parents from a village outside a school's designated catchment area who approach the LEA requesting that an established route be extended to the village. The parents agree to pay the balance of the cost of that extended route, but the county will not agree to their proposals. I heard of a similar case when I met parents from Chudleigh. Those parents had made it clear to the county that they would underwrite and reimburse the county for any extra expenses that might be incurred in sending their children to the school of their choice. However, their proposal was rejected.

The third example concerns children with examination commitments and GCSE courses of study. They may be provided with transport--usually an expensive taxi--if they move from within the catchment area to a new home outside that area. However, younger children with no GCSE commitments cannot be considered for transportation to their original school and are expected to change to a new school, even if a taxi with seats available is provided for the older child. The teacher who provided me with those examples concludes:

I am not aware of that teacher's political affiliations, but I know how he feels about the issue of parental choice.

1 May 1996 : Column 1105

I shall give the House two other examples. The first relates to my constituents who live in Lustleigh, which is a village on the edge of Dartmoor. There are two villages near Lustleigh--Moretonhampstead and Bovey Tracey. Lustleigh no longer has a school, but there are schools at the other two villages which are virtually equidistant from Lustleigh. I believe that in the past they were co-designated schools, but that is no longer the case.

Mr. and Mrs. Foskett of Lustleigh have written to me about their experience, and it is worth quoting from their letter at some length. They say:

    When my 8 year old son Michael came of school age he was unable to attend Bovey Tracey school"--

the designated school--

    When our youngest son Richard started school last January we naturally wanted him to attend the same school as his brother for several reasons which should be apparent. This decision, after appeal in September 1995, was viewed by the LEA as an exercise in parental choice, and therefore, our appeal for free school transport was rejected. Richard continued to travel on the bus whilst we awaited notification as to how much, when and where to pay the fee. To this date"--

the letter was dated January 1996--

    However, when school resumed following the Christmas break Richard's name did not appear on the passenger list. The bus driver continued to carry him on an unofficial basis, for which he has received a reprimand, whilst we attempted to resolve the situation. We were in the process of doing this and had been in touch with the LEA when Richard was refused access to the bus in order to come home from school. As we are not on the telephone it fell to his 65 year old grandmother to walk from her home in Moretonhampstead to collect him, whilst Michael travelled as normal. The insensitivity of this act towards a bemused 5-year-old child has left us shocked and dismayed, and has resulted in the ridiculous situation of one child travelling to and from school on the bus whilst we follow with the other in the car."

Their concluding words are far more graphic than anything I could devise:

    I am aware that finances are tight--but this is an issue that can be resolved, in our case at least, at no extra cost to the council taxpayer."

That is a good example of what I said earlier.

Perhaps the most grotesque example, which, if it were not so serious would be laughable, concerns Mr. andMrs. Walters who live in Denbury. Their nearest school is the South Dartmoor community college, which is some4.3 miles away from their home, but that is not the school designated by the county council. The county has chosen Coombeshead college, which is an excellent school, as is Knowles Hill school, to which I shall refer in a moment.

Mr. and Mrs. Walters wanted their son Mark to go to Knowles Hill school. They contacted the headmaster and said that there appeared to be a problem in respect of the

1 May 1996 : Column 1106

distance from their home to the school. So the headmaster had it measured. I quote from his letter to Mr. andMrs. Walters:

    "I have had the distance between your area and the two schools independently measured and I can confirm that Knowles Hill school is nearer than Coombeshead when measured along the route that all the children will travel."

One might have assumed that the country would be prepared to accept what the headmaster had said in that regard, but not a bit of it. Then, at God knows what cost in terms of officer time and the like, the county managed to devise a route whereby the designated school was nearer. It finally came up with a route which meant that Coombeshead was nearer than Knowles Hill by some 352 yd.

Coombeshead and Knowles Hill schools are not only in the same town and within sight of each other. Not only do they share part of a campus, but they share the same bus stop. In other words, whether Mark Walters travels to the school he wants to attend or the school that the county wants him to attend, he will have to get off the bus at the same stop. If one example shows beyond all doubt the motives behind the council's policy, that is it. The schools share the same bus stop, yet the county will not concede that parents have a right to choose.

I could cite numerous examples if time permitted. Some Catholic parents living in Dawlish wrote to me as follows:

They continued, as so many parents have done, by asking what is happening to parental choice in Devon.

When one examines those cases and asks what fiscal policy is being served, the answer is none. Those parents are seeking the same contribution that the county would have had to make in any event. What possible straightforward, decent, laudable educational policy is being served by treating parents in such a way? It is ludicrous that a school bus is allowed to carry one sibling but not the other. The same bus route and the same bus stop can apply to two schools but the county will not allow parents any choice. Despite the fact that the LEA says that it is short of money, it considers it a good use of officers' time to devise a particular route to ensure that the route to its designated school is 352 yd shorter.

What can be done? I look forward to a change in the law so that local education authorities are not allowed to behave in that way. That is obviously something for the future. Today, I am concerned about the parents in my constituency. When the route between a designated school and a child's home is considered, it should be on the basis that it is a suitable, safe route that a child might reasonably take. I have cited a few examples, but I can give countless others where, to put it as neutrally as I can, there is a grave suspicion that the way in which Devon county council operates that policy has nothing to do with prudent financing and everything to do with thwarting an educational policy with which it is politically out of sympathy.

1 May 1996 : Column 1107

I hope that, in my hon. Friend's reply to the debate, she will at least say that she is prepared to examine those individual cases and the way in which Devon is operating the policy and attempt to bring some relief to parents in my constituency who, at present, have no hope.

Next Section

IndexHome Page