|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Morris of Bolton: Amendment No. 12, which is grouped with Amendment No. 9, is probing in nature and is an attempt to reinstate the status quo. It would ensure that children who live more than two miles away from their primary school and more than three miles away from their secondary school will still receive free transport. It would not prevent LEAs from trying to tackle congestion relating to children living fewer than two miles away from their primary school or fewer than three miles away from their secondary school. It would allow LEAs the freedom to do so.
We need to recognise the fact that, under the Bill, parents could be looking at a charge of £1 a day for each pupil. For a family of one child, that is about £200 during the school year, but it does not take much for the figures to multiply according to the number of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that it was expensive even for parents who are not on a low income; I might add that it is expensive for Members of this Chamber, too. A family of four children could face a bill of £800 a year for sending their children to school, which is an expensive addition to housekeeping costs for many hard-working families. However, I noted in the prospectus that there is a particularly strong case for providing protection from charges for the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age in a household, as they comprise less than 1 per cent of the pupil population.
We must also remember that the cut-off of free school transport for protected children is fairly low and is set at an income of about £13,000the same as the entitlement for free school meals. In many constituencies, the average income is £24,000. At the same time, however, the Government have introduced means-tested benefits through various tax credit and childcare schemes, from which families who earn up to £59,000 a year can benefit. It is inconsistent to give money through some child tax credit schemes to families earning £59,000 a year, while taking it away from families who may earn only a little more than £13,000 a year. We must therefore be consistent in the way in which we tackle need and people's ability to pay.
Amendment No. 24 introduces the case of a pupil attending a specialist school, having taken and passed the necessary entrance qualifications. It would be useful to allow a child who lives on the wrong side of town and who has a particular interest in attending a specialist school because of the nature of its speciality to attend that school, and it would be useful to provide some support for that child's transport costs. Amendment No. 22 raises a similar issue in regard to a child registered at a Welsh-language school.
That raises the question of how one assesses whether the child ought to go to such a school and whether the school is suitable for the child. The Government have
7 Mar 2005 : Column GC223
made some suggestions as to how we might determine what is a suitable school for a child and how we might introduce an objective test to measure it. In their response to the report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills on school admissions, the Government accepted the need for aptitude tests for certain types of school. The examples of that were special sports schools and schools specialising in visual and performing arts and languages. Those schools would be able to continue to set an aptitude test and select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of their aptitude in sport, the visual and performing arts or languages.
If we are to go down the route of trying to encourage more pupils to attend a school that will meet their particular needsin this case, one that will give that child specialist supportwe ought to provide free school transport to the pupils who pass that aptitude test. It is an objective measure of whether that school is suitable for them.
Amendment No. 9 would maintain the current entitlement to school transport of any child who attends primary school and lives more than two miles away or any other child who attends secondary school and lives more than three miles away; it seeks to prevent travel scheme authorities from removing any existing entitlement to free transport.
If such an amendment was passed, the effect, if not the intent, of it would be to destroy the Bill. If you protect all those who are currently protected, you pre-empt such a large amount of the scope and funding that local authorities have that they will have precious little room for manoeuvre to do anything positive or creative to get more children out of cars into walking, cycling, other forms of transport such as buses or other ways to get children to school that are more environmentally friendly, healthy and equitable. I hope that that is self-evident from the arithmetic alone; if you protect everybody whom you currently protect, you pre-empt the scheme. I shall not assume that that was the intent; I shall assume that these are in the nature of probing amendments and unpack what lies behind them.
Under the current system, only a small minority of pupils receive free or assisted home to school transport; only about 10 per cent of pupils in England and 20 per cent in Wales get anything at all. There is a relatively large subsidyalthough I shall be careful in referring to figures of £600 million as large in front of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, as it might upset him. About £675 million was spent in England in 2002-03 on school transport; that is large in these contexts, if not in total local government terms. I am only teasing the noble Lord.
That subsidy is given simply on the basis of distance criteria, because that was what legislators in the 1940s believed was a good enough rule. In practice, we know that nearly two-thirds of pupils who arrive at school by
7 Mar 2005 : Column GC224
bus have their fares paid by their parents, not by the LEA. Those pupils who have their fare paid for by their parents are disproportionately drawn from families with lower household incomes. I would be more sympathetic to the argument to protect the status quo if the status quo were not disproportionately subsidising richer rather than poorer parents. I have given the evidence for that previously. If we deny local authorities the opportunity to raise additional revenue for reinvestment to redistribute the subsidy for home-to-school transport, as this amendment and others would do, those children would continue to shoulder this burden and we would make no contribution to health or environmental improvement.
As we said at Second Reading, there is no public funding available to expand free provision of school transport. Grown-up politics says at times that one has to consider how to get the maximum amount possible from a fixed sum of money rather than always being able to throw more money at something. So it is vital that local authorities are given the scope to be more thoughtful and creative in using their limited resources. Although the Bill will not lead to increased public funding, it will allow authorities to design improved services through a combination of efficient use of existing resources, reinvestment of revenue from charging and redistributing.
The amendment would eliminate the possibility of reinvesting revenue, as schemes would be prevented from charging, prevent the redistribution of the existing subsidy, and remove the capacity to make improvements. I hope that no one really wishes that to happenotherwise we are all wasting our time. We are considering how to create a system that will achieve more equity and make an environmental contribution, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly said that she wanted to.
When charges are proposed, the prospectus asks scheme applicants to set out in great detail their proposals for charging, which must be the subject of wide local consultation. The prospectus emphasises that charges must be affordable and not pitched at a level which would increase car useotherwise the whole venture will be abortive and a waste of time, because it will lead to what it was meant to cure. It also requires local schemes to take full account of the effects of family size and the pressures on low-income families.
On Amendments Nos. 22 and 24, I agree that transport for pupils attending denominational and Welsh-medium schools is important, as those pupils are likely to make longer journeys than their peers who attend their neighbourhood community or, in Wales, English-medium community school. Many parents exercise parental preference so that their children can attend denominational schools, and in those cases local education authorities have no obligation to provide transport, unless the school is the child's nearest suitable school and outside statutory walking distance. This is similar to the debate that we had on
7 Mar 2005 : Column GC225
SEN, in that we are not seeking to use the Bill to provide betterment for groups who currently do not have betterment. The consequence of that would be that we would remove the scope of the scheme for creative improvements.
I understand that parents and pupils attending denominational schools are becoming increasingly concerned that discretionary transport to denominational schools, both free and subsidised, is being withdrawn by some authorities. The Catholic Education Service and the Church of England Board of Education recognise some of the problems with current transport arrangements to denominational schools, and want to work with us to put in place arrangements that will increase the availability of affordable transport to children attending denominational schools. That may be why they have not been at all averse to the Billbecause they have seen its potential.
Paragraph 10 of the prospectus identifies transport to denominational schools and to Welsh-medium schools as a priority area for school travel schemes. That is the relevance of it. The prospectus accompanying the Bill is very clear on how LEAs should address the question of charges and denominational schools. It states:
"LEAs should pay careful attention to the impact of any charges on low income families whose parents adhere to a particular faith or philosophy, and who have expressed a preference for a particular school as a result of their religious or their philosophical beliefs (or in Wales because of the language of instruction). In our view, it is possible that these categories of pupils may be discriminated against if they are treated differently from other pupils from low income families, unless the different treatment can be objectively justified, for example on grounds of excessive journey length, or having a detrimental impact on the child's education".
The prospectus also makes it clear that when provision is made for pupils travelling to denominational schools, it must be made for pupils travelling to non-denominational schools to be educated in accordance with their parents' philosophical beliefs. However, we cannot accept that pupils travelling to denominational schools should receive free transport, if pupils attending community schools are making a contribution to their transport costs. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will see the comparison there with the debate that we had on SEN.
The effect of Amendment No. 22 is to extend the protection from charges to all pupils of compulsory school age who attend a Welsh-medium school. We cannot agree to this amendment, not least because it is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. It would require scheme authorities to discriminate in favour of pupils who attend Welsh-medium schools, and therefore to treat those children more favourably than pupils who attend English-medium schools.
Many parents exercise parental preference so that their children can attend Welsh-medium schools, and in these cases local education authorities have no obligation to provide transport. It is often provided on a free or subsidised basis, but that is discretionary, not
7 Mar 2005 : Column GC226
mandatory. On a practical level, different LEAs have different levels of Welsh-medium school provision. I shall not go into detail now, although I could do so later if that was helpful.
The situation regarding specialist schools, which is the subject of Amendment No. 24, is somewhat different. We want all secondary schools to play to their strengths and provide a curriculum that offers flexibility. Our five-year strategy set that out. More than two-thirds of secondary schools have already achieved specialist status. To date, 15.8 per cent of specialist schools are rural schools. Specialist status does not limit pupil choice or narrow the curriculum; every comprehensive school in the country is obliged to provide the full national curriculum. Therefore, parents in rural areas will not need to make school preference decisions on the basis of a school becoming a specialist school. They will get the core offer of the national curriculum in any specialist school that they go to.
The Government recognise that schools in rural areas are often geographically far apart. The specialist school concept does not pose a barrier in this regard and for school partnerships, we fully appreciate that it may be necessary to concentrate on ICT-based links, or teachers with a particular expertise travelling to pupils rather than pupils travelling further. Such approaches sit well with the programme.
Amendment No. 24 would extend free school transport to pupils who have passed an aptitude test to attend a specialist school. Only 6 per cent of specialist schools and about 2 per cent of all secondary schools select by aptitude. Despite that, we cannot accept that pupils who have passed an aptitude test should receive free transport. If they attend their nearest school, we think that they should be treated in the same way as other pupils. When they do not attend their nearest school, we think they should be treated in the same way as other pupils whose parents exercise parental preference. Although some scheme authorities might implement proposals that would have the effect of facilitating attendance at schools of parental preferencefor example through area-wide concessionary fare schemeswe feel that there should again be local discretion in that regard, as that is part of what the Bill is all about.
There is nearly an end to this monologue. The part of the amendment to which I have just referred, if it became part of the Bill, might even lead to parents applying for places in specialist schoolsalthough let me not labour that point. I hope that the Committee will agree that this amendment would create unnecessary divisions between pupils in the same school, and would not reflect our wish that the cost of school transport for all pupils better reflects their family circumstances.
I have spoken at length, but I hope that I have illustrated some of the essential architecture of the Bill, building on the debate that we had on SEN. I hope that my speech was helpful, despite being of a wearisome length.
7 Mar 2005 : Column GC227
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|