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Clearly, it is essential that young people who are not lucky enough or old enough to have their own car can access the facilities and instruction that they need to pursue their chosen path. The issue is partly about developing good public transport. Local authorities already have a duty to draw up a transport policy statement for young people, and the Education and Skills Bill may create further demand for services, as the hon. Gentleman said. It also includes a clause that will require all local authorities to pay attention to travel time, distance and cost when setting out their plans. I hope that that will start to address the issues
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highlighted in the examples that he gave of individuals having to travel for two hours each way to access education.

Mr. Breed: After I had given notice of the fact that I was holding this debate, I received a communication on Cornwall from the Association of Colleges. It says:

current legislation

as the Minister says. The body goes on to say:

in the case of Cornwall—

Jim Knight: Obviously we will discuss the clause in detail in Committee, but in the meantime, just to whet the hon. Gentleman’s appetite, I will say that clauses in part 1 of the Bill that refer to local authorities’ obligations will help to address the concerns of the organisation that he mentions.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister rightly refers to the issue of local authority obligations. Only one of the eight state secondary schools in my constituency has a sixth form, so there is a great deal of travel from villages and towns to get to post-16 provision. On the Isles of Scilly, transport is provided in a different way. In fact, the Government have been very helpful in ensuring that Scillonians can get to post-16 provision. Does the Minister not accept that there are specific needs and circumstances that the Government need to allow for in the budget provided to local education authorities, so that those LEAs can meet their statutory obligations?

Jim Knight: I accept that we need to have regard to the circumstances that local authorities face in delivering their obligations. That is why the Isles of Scilly are relative well funded, per pupil—to try to take account of circumstances there. When we enact the legislation, subject to parliamentary approval, we do not propose to implement an increase in participation in education overnight. We propose to wait until 2013 for 17-year-olds, and 2015 for 18-year-olds. That is necessary, as a range of reforms must be introduced if the policy is to work and if we are not to criminalise a legion of young people. Equally, it allows us time to look at local circumstances and difficulties in areas facing special challenges such as the Isles of Scilly—I represent some islands in my constituency—to determine how they can fulfil their obligations so that every young person has the opportunity to fulfil their duty in the proposed legislation to participate in education until the age of 18.

As I said, local authorities already have a duty to draw up a transport policy statement for young people, and I have referred to the relevant clause in the Education and Skills Bill. When it comes to transport, however, we must understand and respect the local context, as we have discussed. All areas need the freedom and flexibility to develop solutions that meet
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their individual needs, and that is exactly what is happening around the country. Some people have called for free or subsidised transport for all post-16 learners—perhaps a 24/7 scheme so that they could access the public transport network for free—all the time. I was interested in the rural transport steering group paper entitled, “Rural transport—long distance learners? Transport for teenage learners in rural areas”. The picture on the front grabbed my attention, because it showed a young woman waiting for a bus to Weymouth. It was a well chosen picture—I assume that it was taken in my constituency—and I had a useful meeting with the report’s authors to discuss their proposals.

I am mindful, too, of the priority that the Youth Parliament places on the need to secure free transport for young people. I have some sympathy with the proposal, which is simple and clear and, I am confident, would probably improve access to education for some young people. The Government need to keep it under review, but at least two significant obstacles would have to be overcome before I could give it serious consideration. The first, and slightly lesser consideration is cost. There would be a considerable outlay, and there could be a deadweight cost in areas such as London, Cumbria and other authorities that already offer such a service at no charge to young people. However, we might consider it worth paying that cost if it safeguarded access. Secondly, I am concerned that the proposal might not fulfil its purpose for enough young people, and it would not necessarily help those who need it most.

Free public transport is helpful only if it is convenient and timely. There is no point in having such a subsidy if someone lives miles away from a bus that comes along only once a day. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall gave a similar example regarding train services. The scheme would have to be administratively robust, help those who most need it and keep people engaged in learning.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The Minister focused on the issue of convenience and the appropriateness of routes. However, does he not concede that if a subsidy led to the greater use of services, some of those routes might make a lot more sense economically?

Jim Knight: It is certainly possible to design a scheme that would create a tipping point that would make certain routes more viable or make the available subsidy go further. Equally, it is possible to develop subsidy schemes that are hugely bureaucratic and would not necessarily have the effect sought by the hon. Gentleman. I therefore remain open-minded.

Such a scheme might work for certain areas, but I have yet to be convinced that it would achieve a universal impact. I wish to stress the fact that many “non-transport” solutions have been successfully introduced across the country. Effective e-learning, for instance, can open up new opportunities for young people to study at their base school or even at home. Shared timetables across an area can reduce the need for transport between institutions during the day, while block timetabling can reduce the number of times a
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young person has to make a longer journey, particularly as we develop diplomas through 14-to-19 partnerships.

Mobile teachers or facilities for some courses can help more young people to access subjects at their own school. I see the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) looking slightly perplexed but there are examples of mobile science labs and mobile facilities that some in the rural pathfinder areas for diplomas have been using and which have been successful. What is crucial in every instance is that we develop a strong collaborative culture within local authorities, with the 14-to-19 team, the transport team and the capital team working together to build a coherent long-term strategy for guaranteeing access to learning.

We are committed to finding the solutions for different areas, and we are using the experience and knowledge that we have built up. From the beginning of the 14-to-19 reform programme, we established a number of pathfinders to test out the logistics in pilot areas. Those included rural areas: first Cumbria and Shropshire, and later areas such as Norfolk and Somerset, which is still a distance from Cornwall but is not quite as far away as Cumbria. We have learned a great deal about rural needs from those pathfinders and from those rural areas that subsequently passed through the first diploma gateway. Even more rural consortiums will be delivering from September 2009 after the results of the second diploma gateway are announced in April this year.

The Cornwall collegiate is one of those that is set to deliver diplomas from this September. To do so, it has had to demonstrate a robust transport solution that ensures fair access to those courses. Of course, that remains a work in progress and we will need to go further before we reach a situation where we can offer the full range of options in Cornwall and similar areas. Therefore, there is intensive work under way to support the roll-out.

In Cornwall specifically, we have awarded the consortium £1 million to develop a virtual learning environment to allow distance learning. That will form the basis of the 14-to-19 Cornwall virtual diploma college, which will eventually support all diploma lines.

More broadly, we have an internal project under way that will give us a wealth of information about how to address the access question in different parts of the country, taking into account the different circumstances in which areas find themselves. It will map the character and challenges faced by rural areas around the country and then identify areas with common characteristics. That will mean that we can share best practice and find solutions that really work for such areas.

Alongside that, we have asked York Consulting to undertake a research project into 14-to-19 transport. That is not looking exclusively at rural transport issues but clearly that will be a significant issue to be investigated. I will ensure that it is taken seriously because it is a subject in which I am extremely interested. Therefore, we are building considerable knowledge and expertise for dealing with the challenge of rural transport, and local authorities will benefit from that as they build their capabilities for delivering the reforms.

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That said, however much knowledge we build in the centre, I do not want to pretend that we will have a monopoly on wisdom in that area. I will continue to want to work with colleagues in local government, following the excellent work that the rural transport group has carried out, to explore the options and priorities that have been set out.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Minister has outlined a futuristic view of how education can be delivered. However, colleges and local authorities will be concerned that previous practice by Government has been to say that all these things can be delivered, but then not to deliver the grant needed for those authorities to deliver them. Devon, for example, had £15 million-worth of school transport, but only £5 million was identified by Government—a £10 million shortfall.

Jim Knight: There is certainly an important role for local authorities in setting their priorities. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall mentioned the advantage for young people in London, because they
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do not have to spend their education maintenance allowance on transport, as those in Dorset and Cornwall might have to do. However, it is for London local authorities to decide how to allocate their resources. That is not to say that there are not circumstances in which I would look seriously at whether we have adequate resources for the challenges in rural areas, but I reserve judgment. We have to continue with our work and investigations to ensure that the system works for every young person, wherever they are in the country.

We are actively aware of the transport concerns raised in the debate and we are working intensively with local authorities and consortium partners to develop appropriate solutions. In the early pathfinders and in the work of the consortiums already gearing up to deliver the first diplomas, we can see that local areas are best placed to come up with the appropriate solutions for their young people. Through the right blend of technology, investment in transport, sensible timetabling and flexible or mobile teaching facilities, we can arrive at effective solutions for all young people in Cornwall and elsewhere.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.

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