Tue, 19 Jul 2016
PARENTS of sixth form students in Hungerford are facing annual travel bills of at least £531 owing to district council cuts.
And the pill is even more bitter because further education or training until 18 years is now compulsory.
That fact, coupled with the sudden closure of John O’Gaunt School’s sixth form in July 2015, has forced over-16s to travel to Newbury or Marlborough in Wiltshire.
Some parents have likened the situation to a postcode lottery.
One resident, Kathryn Morris, said in a letter to this newspaper: “This is a huge amount for local families to find... families in Newbury don’t have to pay this.”
The Government states local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that young people in rural areas “should not be worse off financially because they may need to travel further to access education”.
Nevertheless, West Berkshire Council has withdrawn its subsidy, which means Hungerford parents, who paid £230 for a train pass to the closest sixth form, in Newbury, must now pay £511 for the school year plus a £20 council admin fee.
Bus fares are said to be around £684.
Another Hungerford parent, Hayley Crane, has written to district councillors James Podger and Paul Hewer (both Con, Hungerford), stating: “Despite the fact that Government has decreed that all current post-16 children now have to be in education or traineeship up to the age of 18, no provision has been made to ensure that local authorities provide appropriate transport; this means that children living in rural areas are being discriminated against in terms of access to further education.
“This is morally wrong and needs to be addressed at the highest possible level.
“Free school transport for, and access to, post-16 education is vital to ensure equality for all children, no matter where they live.”
Town mayor Martin Crane has written to West Berkshire Council chief executive Nick Carter, asking for the decision to remove the subsidy to be reconsidered.
He told Mr Carter: “I fully appreciate your current view that pupils from other distant parts also have to face the cost of travel but the big difference is that parents living in such areas were well aware of such a cost.
“Parents in Hungerford were faced with no choice when the decision to close (the sixth form) was made with little or no notice.
“I believe that there must be some room for some interim relief at least.
“Clearly there is a need to work swiftly on this issue so that any change can be implemented ahead of the new school year.”
At a meeting of Hungerford Town Council, Helen Simpson said she was receiving emails from parents on the subject and added: “It’s a bigger issue than you might think.
“Many people bought homes in Hungerford because there was a secondary school with a sixth form.
“Can we help those parents who are really going to struggle, with some kind of subsidy?”
Another suggestion was to examine the possibility of arranging a coach.
Rob Chicken said: “This is quite urgent and if there’s any money in the pot we should give serious consideration to using it to help.”
The council agreed to ask its finance and general purposes committee to examine the issue.
District councillor James Podger (Con, Hungerford) told the meeting: “The decision to suspend the sixth form was the right one – there was such a tiny take-up.
“But I have a meeting with the chief executive coming up and let’s just say that discussions are ongoing about the transport situation.”
A spokesman for West Berkshire Council, Martin Dunscombe, said the decision to remove the subsidy was taken “reluctantly” in the wake of Government funding cuts.
He stressed the decision to suspend the sixth form was taken by the school, and added: “We have made sure that no one has been disadvantaged because of where they live.
“Bus passes cost the same irrespective of whether a student travels two miles in an urban area such as to the centre of Newbury or travels from a rural area which may be much further afield.
“As well as bus passes, we also offer discounted rail passes for students who prefer to travel by train.
“Although we have no plans to introduce a new bus service, Hungerford Town Council is exploring the feasibility of offering a community-led bus service.”
Mr Dunscombe went on: “Recently we have been in discussions with the town council to help them research their options and have provided the demographic and financial information they need to inform any decision.
“We will continue to work with the town council and support them as they continue to consider their options.”