Commons Gate

School travel (HC 911-iv)

Transport Committee 26 Nov 2008

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Evidence given by:
2.45 Local Government Association Cllr Les Lawrence, Cllr Les Lawrence, Chair of Children and Young Peoples Board Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers Ian Gwenlan, Principal School Transport Officer
3.45 Department for Transport Paul Clark MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport Jessica Matthews, Deputy Director, Cycling and Sustainable Travel Department for Children, Schools and Families Sarah McCarthy-Fry MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families. Hilary Spencer, Deputy Director, 14-19 Policy and Local Delivery Division

Q336 Mr. David Clelland: Perhaps I could pursue that question on School Travel Plans. How successful the School travel plans been in bringing about modal shift?

Councillor Lawrence: If you look at some of the urban areas, the difference between the amount of vehicle traffic going to and from schools between term time and non-term time is about 18% in terms of the volume. Where you have had School Travel Plans, that reduction has been in part maintained in terms of the number of vehicle journeys carrying pupils to and from the school; where a school has not, you will see the stark increase between non-term time and term time. It is very important, therefore, that local authorities try to work with schools to facilitate the plans. But that is when you come up against the funding paradigm. Where authorities have started trying to facilitate providing travel concessions to pupils - where are at the moment it is a standard three-mile limit and they have tried to take it down to two miles - they have then found that the financial pressure has meant that they have gone back to the three-mile limit. That means that you are not able to decrease the traffic to the extent that you had done when you went down to the two-mile limit. The Walking Bus has been successful when you can get volunteers to be the providers of that Walking Bus, but of course sustaining and maintaining volunteers is not always as easy as it first sounds, because you get enthusiasm to start with but maintaining that enthusiasm is somewhat difficult.

Q337 Mr. David Clelland: I was about to ask you that. Is it possible to maintain the benefits of School Travel Plans after that initial enthusiasm has waned?

Councillor Lawrence: Speaking on the behalf of colleagues from different types of authorities, I have to say that it is easier to do it in an urban location and less so in the more rural areas. You have to take into account the mobility of parents, especially if they are working, and their time constraints, whereas in urban areas you will find that the flexibility of peopleís travel to satisfy their own requirements is much greater. It is a case of how you can adapt individual plans to suit individual localities and neighbourhoods around individual schools.

Q338 Mr. David Clelland: Are schools providing enough support for travel plans?

Councillor Lawrence: Shall we say the enthusiasm is like an exponential curve from incredibly enthusiastic - very much linked into aspects of the curriculum around understanding climate change and the nature of the effects on the environment within the school arena - to schools who effectively do not wish to encourage participation because they feel it is an additional burden on themselves and often the governing body is not supportive.

Q339 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there are adequate monitoring arrangements in place to enable the success of School Travel Plans?

Councillor Lawrence: It is difficult to get a feel for that. I think that is still a developing area. Again Ian might be able to give you some practical examples from an officer perspective.

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Q342 Mr. David Clelland: Councillor Lawrence mentioned funding. Is there enough revenue funding to maintain and improve travel plans?

Councillor Lawrence: The honest answer is no. It is of concern that when local authorities are faced with difficult decisions it is usually a cross-portfolio responsibility between childrenís services and transportation, and it is then seen purely as a local authority responsibility, whereas a lot of authorities have tried with travel plans around schools to get the schools to contribute from within their own budgetary money as well. By having the school enjoined financially within the travel plan, you are more likely to succeed with the implementation and the sustainability of that travel plan. It is likely to be the kind of pressure, given the economic circumstances over the next three to four years, where you may well see a lessening of the number of travel plans. Again from talking to colleagues in non-urban areas, I think that it will become very, very difficult not only to meet School Travel Plans but to fulfil one of the other statutory duties, which is around the provision of access to positive activities for young people - which usually takes place outside of school hours. If we do not begin to look at some innovative ways of changing the environment, we will be unlikely to fulfil that statutory duty that has been placed upon us.

Q343 Mr. David Clelland: Finally, is the Departmentís target for all schools to complete travel plans by 2010 realistic?

Mr Gwenlan: I think it is not realistic.

Q344 Mr. David Clelland: Why will some schools not achieve that target?

Mr Gwenlan: It is not the schools that will not achieve the target, it is the authorities that will not achieve the target because the target includes not just local authority maintained schools but independent schools as well and I think that is going to be the hard nut to crack. In my own authority, we are at about 90% in terms of local authority maintained schools, but when you add in the independent schools it is about 80%. My own view is that it is not realistic, because those schools are very difficult to engage. I think some of them just will not engage. There is no incentive for them to do so.

Q345 Mr. David Clelland: Could there be an incentive?

Councillor Lawrence: One of the ways we have been seeking to see if we can find an innovative idea - and this is more applicable to rural areas than it is to urban areas - is that both bodies who are applying for a licence to provide transport services should have included in that licence a social responsibility clause whereby they have to provide certain services at certain times of the day to meet the needs of young people, either in terms of school transport or in terms of - and more importantly I would argue - access to positive activities, especially at 14-19, to enable the achievement of economic well-being for youngsters not only to go to college but to have the opportunity to undertake apprenticeships. Especially if you work that into concepts of economic development and regeneration and linking into the business world, it is a way of ensuring that young people have an opportunity to continue with either education, employment or training, or a combination of any of those three. It is an idea that we are looking at and working on, simply because I think it will be more difficult for youngsters within rural areas, given the distances and the lack of bus services in many of those areas, for youngsters and the local authority especially to meet its statutory duty. That is an area that does need to be looked at realistically by the departments involved in this area.

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Q383 Mr. David Clelland: Is there a case for changing the statutory walking distances?

Mr Gwenlan: I think we have to go back to why the statutory walking distance were there. Clearly they were distances beyond which it was reasonably expected the child could not walk. Today it is unlikely that children and/or their parents will walk, let us say, two-and-a-half miles to get to and from school, and so the statutory walking distance is, in effect, an arbitrary limit which differentiates as to whether the financial burden falls on the parent or the local authority.

Q384 Mr. David Clelland: Should the system be more flexible, do you think?

Mr Gwenlan: I think that is a political view.

Q385 Chairman: Councillor Lawrence, do you have a view on that?

Councillor Lawrence: When you say flexible, if you mean should the element of discretion be allowed to be exercised by a local authority, then yes, because, again depending on the location of the school, it may well be that it is located within a residential community where traffic volumes, traffic flows, are fairly minimal, other than residential traffic, in which case you could argue that the discretionary distance could be greater and through the use of things like the walking bus concept you can encourage that degree of walking. But if you have a school that is located with its entrance on a tributary of or on the main highway, then, in essence, you almost have to say that the distance is one based on safety of home to school rather than an arbitrary distance. I think the discretion has to be very much within the context of a local authority.

Q386 Mr. David Clelland: Given what you have said, does that mean that there are problems with the statutory distance in some cases?

Councillor Lawrence: Yes, there are. Given the nature of different neighbourhoods and localities, to try to apply it on an equal basis across the local authority can be quite difficult and does give rise to concern amongst parental groups.

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Q407 Mr. David Clelland: Do you support the national concessionary fare scheme for children and young people and if not why not?

Paul Clark: Let me deal first with the concessionary fares from the point of view of children. Whilst on the face of it rolling out a programme of concessionary fares for all young people seems a sensible step forward, equally it has a danger of cutting across many other requirements and other goals that I suspect we, all around this Committee, Chairman, would want to support. For example, some 52% of young people in primary schools walk to school; equally the number for secondary schools is high as well. We have seen examples where there has been a school bus operation, for example, where actually there has been a reduction in the number walking and more using the bus, so that then cuts across various other agendas which I am sure the Committee is well aware of in terms of how to deliver genuinely active sustainable transport alternatives. In terms of a concessionary fare if there was a rollout of a total concessionary fare, free transport for all 5 to 19 year olds for example, England-wide, we would be talking of a cost of in excess of probably around about £1.4 billion which, as I say, is a substantial amount of money and not, probably, going to achieve the objectives that all of us would want to see.

Q408 Mr. David Clelland: Let us take the 16 to 19 age group for instance. We are trying to encourage young people to further their education, to acquire skills in order to benefit the economy of the country as well as themselves. Often there is a great barrier for young people in travelling to colleges of further education, which can be spread out over quite big distances; and of course some colleges of education specialise in certain areas like engineering - aero-engineering for instance is a specialism in Newcastle College so if a student from Middlesbrough wanted to go to the best college for aero-engineering it is quite a distance to travel, so travel can become a barrier to acquiring skills and further education so surely that should be taken into account.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: From the DCSF point of view we do not want transport to be a barrier to learning but going back to your original question of a nationwide blanket, presumably a 5 to 19 concessionary fare scheme, we very much agree with the Department of Transport that we would not necessarily think that that was the best use of that enormous sum of money. However, we are looking at ways to overcome the barriers, particularly as you are talking about the 16 to 19 age group. What we have started doing is there is a duty on the local authorities to actually have a transport policy statement setting out the support that they are going to give to young people aged 16 to 18 and we are proposing in our next Bill that they are then going to have to publish the assessments of how they came to put that policy statement together. Very often if we move to the diploma part as well, and we are raising the participation age from 16 to 18, we are going to be looking at ways in which we can use innovative ways of delivering the entitlement, but also we are looking at examples where local authorities are working together to come together for the best way of getting the transport around. When we come to concessionary fares, obviously in London all the young people have free travel, but we have to accept that there are different horses for courses in different parts of the country. London already has a very well integrated, comprehensive transport system; what is the best use of the resources we have, what is best for London is not necessarily best for other areas but it is certainly something that we are looking at as we move towards raising the participation age and towards delivering diplomas, which are a different type of delivering education.

Paul Clark: Could I just add to that? The joint work that the DfT has been doing along with now DCSF in terms of the travelling to school initiative and so on, and actually having to roll out those plans to meet exactly the requirements that you are indicating, is helping to focus in terms of how we can draw things together. As Sarah has already indicated, certainly transport must not be a barrier to young people being able to get those options and to exercise the options and requirements that they have under education and training, so that is of particular importance in terms of how we do it. I would just say that in terms of a free blanket concessionary fare option it is a very blunt instrument to meet the requirements that may be different, for example, within a tight urban area. Of course one of the provisions under the new Local Transport Bill, soon to be the Act, I hope, with Royal Assent later this month, would actually allow passenger transport executives and authorities to become integrated transport authorities, so taking responsibility across the board for transport requirements, and would actually help to have a far better joined-up view of the delivery, exactly as you are indicating.

Q409 Mr. David Clelland: Is there a case then, perhaps, in advance of a national scheme, even concentrating only on the 16 to 19 age group, to perhaps look at regional initiatives? Would it be an idea perhaps to bring together regional stakeholders like local transport authorities, learning and skills councils, further education colleges, local authorities and even the bus companies themselves who are, for heavenís sake, making massive profits. Surely they could contribute something to this for the good of their regions; is there a case perhaps for bringing stakeholders together to do something on a regional basis?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Certainly on the diploma delivery we are doing that but probably with more sub-regional groupings than regional because we are looking at ways in which colleges and local authorities work together. We do actually have some examples of where local authorities are working together to try and get a coherent strategy. There is a London census mapping exercise to see how children are travelling across boroughs and in Suffolk there is a regional group which is bringing together transport and childrenís services to try and make sure that the SMOTS (Sustainable Mode of Travel Schemes) are actually coming together, not just in a local authority but in a wider area.

Q410 Mr Wilshire: On the specific issue that Mr Clark raised about the fact that his department is monitoring the withdrawal of discretionary transport, would he be able to let us have a note on that evidence, as to how many cases he has discovered and actually as interesting, not only which ones but is there any monitoring being done of why these decisions are being taken?

Paul Clark: One of the things I perhaps ought to indicate very clearly on this position in terms of concessionary fares is that the Government has laid down in terms of concessionary travel and, as far as young people are concerned, minimum entitlements depending on various new provisions under the Act. These are minimum provisions and local authorities are able to make additional provisions within their areas and come together, for example as was being suggested earlier, to actually look at how they can meet the requirements of their own local areas and the local demands of their young people in terms of being able to access school and training alike. So the power is there and we do genuinely believe that, hence the whole thrust of much of the work that we have been doing and the work as I say again of the Local Transport Bill is very much about giving tools to local authorities to make the best decision that meets the requirements of their local people and their local situations. In terms of monitoring, what I was saying was we are working closely with authorities as the provisions are rolled out under the education and training sector and the requirements there as to how it is best able to meet those requirements. At this stage it is very much a learning process for each and every one of us and we want to make sure that we are able and in a position as the Department for Transport, working closely with colleagues in the DCSF, to be able to bring that together in the best possible way.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: If I could add on the 16 to 18 age group, I spoke about the transport policy statements and in our analysis of the 2007/08 transport policy statements for that age group almost all local authorities offer some subsidised provision to that age group and 26 local authorities outside London do offer some form of free transport. The eligibility varies but that is an example where local authorities are already doing some of this and I think it is a prime example of a way to get the local authorities working together as we move across boundaries.

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Q438 Mr. David Clelland: What about the independent sector?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: A lot of the independent sector are actually involved. The travel advisers can go into independent schools.

Q439 Chairman: Yes, but we did hear evidence earlier this afternoon that there is a problem with significant parts of the independent sector. We were told that they did not wish to be involved in this. Is that something the Department is aware of?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It is mainly the smaller independent schools that have not actually taken this up.

Q440 Chairman: Has this been identified as an issue within the Department?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Travel advisers are trying to engage with all the schools.

Q441 Chairman: Yes but has the issue about independent schools been registered as a problem?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Personally I have not seen it but I would have to defer to ask the officials if it has been alerted to us.

Ms Spencer: It has come to our attention that in some areas independent schools have not engaged in the same way as maintained schools, but I think it varies quite a lot at local level. We can provide you more details on the cases that have come to our attention.

Q442 Mr. David Clelland: Are you confident that the 2010 target can be met 100%?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I think we are confident.

Q443 Mr. David Clelland: There seems to be some doubt about the independent sector.

Paul Clark: We are confident that it will be met certainly by the maintained sector in terms of schools.

Q444 Mr. David Clelland: But not 100% then.

Paul Clark: Well if 100% is 100% of maintained schools. I think it is exactly true that there is patchiness in the independent sector in terms of their involvement. For example, if I just take where we were in March 2008 when we had 70%, it would be wrong to assume that the other 30% was all in one local authority area. There is a whole range of factors as to why so it could well be only individual schools within a local authority area and the rest are clearly travelling well down the route to develop their school travel plans. Again, that is reflected within the independent sector. Clearly you are right from the discussion we had today and I am sure we will take away the comments of the Committee.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I will certainly be asking officials to look at whether there is a correlation between areas where independent schools are doing it and the involvement of the travel advisers and whether that is a route where we could say to the travel advisers that in areas where the travel adviser has proactively gone into independent schools that there has been greater take-up.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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