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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I welcome this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, it is a narrow measure but I believe that it has the opportunity to impact in a very positive way on the quality of life of possibly millions of schoolchildren and their parents.
It is remarkable that the current system has remained unchanged for 60 years. I am surprised that noble Lords opposite are so wedded to the current arrangements. I cannot believe that anyone who has been a local councillor for a number of years or,
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indeed, has served in the other place, has not had an inquiry from two households close to one another in the same street where one household's children are getting free school transport but the other is not. We should not adhere to that crude cut-off arrangement any longer.
I should at this stage declare my interest as a member of a unitary authority that has LEA responsibilities and as a school governor for several local schools. I draw on that experience in saying why I welcome the measure that is before us. Luton is a compact, urban area but we suffer greatly from the school run. We suffer from disruption and congestion. The roads get clogged. There is indiscriminate parking compromising safety around many schools. You do not need a timetable in Luton to know when the schools are sitting; you simply look out of the window at the traffic flows. This will all get worse if we do not look to change things as increasing affluence will result in more people having access to private cars and being more inclined to use them.
I did not follow the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, when he said that on the one hand local authorities were not going to express an interest in the measure as they would be blamed for charging fees, but on the other that this was some ghastly plot by government to switch resources from rural to urban areas. I hope that my local authorityI no longer have responsibility for leading itwill express an interest in the measure. I know that it is the officers' view that we should. As in most urban areas, children go to their local primary school and they mostly get there by walking with their parents. Obviously, journeys to high schools are longer as there are fewer of them, and journeys to the sixth form colleges and the FE college are even longer.
A concern has been raised with me on which I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give assurance. If a key criterion of the pilots regarding who will be able to participate favours those who can most effect modal shift, will my noble friend assure me that those urban authorities where there is less ability to do that, given the primary school aspect, will not be disadvantaged?
The opportunity for local schemes to be developed is particularly apt given the changing nature of provision. Certainly the old pattern of young people attending secondary school at one location for five years, possibly visiting an off-site location for the occasional sports activity such as swimming, but more or less attending the same facility throughout their school life will change. I draw on local examples to demonstrate that. My authority is part of the Government's Excellence in Cities initiative. A state-of-the-art e-learning centre is attached to one school but is a facility used by all of the schools. Although part of it can be enjoyed by virtual access it cannot be enjoyed to the fullest extent without having access to proper and planned transport arrangements.
The development of vocational provision within the curriculumI refer to John Tomlinson in this regardwill challenge the model of attendance at one site throughout the 11 to 16 phase. Locally, the LEA is developing the concept of a consortium of high schools to
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help deliver that with each school in the consortium providing a different component of the curriculum. If that is to work successfully, appropriate travel arrangements will need to be made. Other suggested models for vocational development include the creation of separate vocational centres that youngsters will attend for part of their schooling. If that is to work, there will have to be new ways of organising travel and transport arrangements.
The 14 to 19 agenda will anyway drive more and better co-operation and interactions between FE colleges and sixth form colleges and schools, all with implications for access and transport. The development of specialist schools and Building Schools for the Futureexciting programmeswill all have similar implications.
Like most, if not all LEAs, we have denominational schools. However, there is only one secondary Roman Catholic school in Luton. It is quite possible that there will be an increase in denominational schools. There is a desire among the Muslim community to develop faith schools. That would give rise to increased journeys across town.
The LEA underwent a thematic Ofsted inspection a couple of years ago. I believe it was a pilot arrangement and that it was never repeated. It considered how the LEA impacted on community cohesion. One feature of current provision for us is a degree of polarisation in the ethnic composition of schools. An emerging recommendation from the review was to seek to make each school more representative of the ethnic composition of the local community as a whole. It was pointed out that that cut across issues of parental choice and therefore a different approach was needed to develop emerging strategies to encourage more interactions between young people from different ethnic groups, for example, through sport, the arts and the use of specialist colleges. All of that has implications for new and changing transport patterns within the area.
A scrutiny committee of the council looked at lifelong learning and analysed attainment and the factors that made a difference and enhanced attainment within schools. As we all know, a whole range of things impact on that. The overall conclusion was that schools and LEAs needed to do a number of things consistently and better and that there was not just one nugget which made a difference. One of the issues that cropped up was that of having banded admissions to schools. We did not take that very far. You would have to be politically brave to do that, although I believe that model existed and perhaps still does in London. If something like that had a real impact on attainment, and if it was to be progressed, there are significant implications for transport across an area.
I support this Bill because it could be a catalyst for other developments. It is certainly an opportunity to do what some councils have already done, which is to integrate social services and educational passenger transport. As an authority that claimed it was greatly joined-up, it was an interesting experience to try to get people out of their silos to do it, but it has been done locally with some benefits. It meant looking not only at
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school hours and consultation on how they could be staggered to make better use of transport, but also at when day centres, family centres and community centres are open.
Another opportunity for local councils arising from this Bill is the chance to take a more strategic view on commissioning of passenger transport. We understood when we did our analysis that there was a lack of capacity in the market, and the way we went about trying to commission transport was impacted by that. Putting extra capacity in the market will not help that in the short term, but it will give greater reassurance to the market and possibly enable councils to develop direct provision of transport as part of these arrangements.
For a variety of reasons, particularly what is happening to education and the increasing joined-up partnership working entailed by that, this Bill is long overdue. It can bring significant benefits, and I hope that it will have speedy passage through this House.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Walmsley made clear, we on these Benches welcome many aspects of this Bill. As the Minister stated in presenting the Bill to the House, the main objectives are to get more children walking and cycling; to limit the number of private cars on the school run; to encourage local education authorities to introduce novel and attractive alternatives and to encourage more children and parents to use communal rather than private transport.
So what is objectionable about it? All of us experience the relief during the school holidays that was noted by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. We learn from the statistics that one in five20 per centof cars at the height of the rush hour are taking children to school. We know that these numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, and that the knock-on effect on traffic congestion, pollution, safety for pedestrians, safety for children and cyclists is bad. We also know that the figures for obesity in school children have increased alarmingly, and the reason is not just their diet but because they are not getting the exercise that they used to get.
Is it not therefore sensible that we come up with some better way of spending the £600 million spent on school transport every year? Yes, it is, butthis is where one begins to look at the downside of this Billthe Bill raises a real problem. The fundamental problem is that it breaches a principle that has been with us for 60 years. Schooling between the ages of five and 16 is compulsory, and where schooling is compulsory if a child lives too far away from the school to reach it easily by footfor a child over the age of eight at three miles and under eight at two milesto enable them to enjoy free schooling during compulsory ages they should be provided with transport to school.
This Bill proposes that the principle of free transport if it is not easy to get to school, is to be breached and that local education authorities may charge for taking children to school. It is made clear in the Explanatory
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Notes that such charging will not be made for those who are very poor. Paragraph 4 of the schedule requires the scheme to set out a charging policy. The Explanatory Notes says:
"No charge may be made under the scheme for travel arrangements for children from low-income families, unless the child has been given an opportunity to attend a suitable school closer to his home but chooses to attend one further afield".
Essentially, it extends the concept of means-testing to school transport, and says that if a family can afford to pay it is reasonable that they should pay. If a child is eligible for free school meals, roughly speaking that means that you are earning £13,000 to £14,000 and have a couple of kids. Otherwise, how much will be charged? A number of figures have been quoted, and it looks as though there could well be a return charge of £1 per day per child on the school bus. Two children travelling on the school bus will cost £10 per week. That is not much if you earn £35,000 or £40,000 a year, but a lot if you are earning £15,000 a year and if your budget is already tight. This is the fundamental difficulty with the Bill. The right reverend Prelate welcomed the Bill, and he quoted paragraph 10 of the school travel schemes prospectus, which states:
"All schemes must aim to cut car use on the home to school journey. Beyond that, they must focus on local priorities and may improve provision for one or more of: pupils travelling to schools preferred on religious or philosophical grounds".
Yes, but he did not mention that they might have to pay for that privilege. This is a fairly fundamental breach of a principle that has been with us for 60 years. It is always the same. Here we have a proposal to change, and there are many sensible reasons why we should change, but inevitably there will be some gainers and some losers. Overall, will we have more gainers or losers?
The advantage of the Government proposals is that they are saying, "Okay, but it is only pilot schemes. What we are suggesting is that local authorities have the right to run a pilot, and we can see how it works out". This in itself is attractive, because it enables us to see whether it works. Does it work? Will it cut car use? The great danger is that once you start charging £5 per week, or £10 if you have a couple of kids, parents will say, "Oh, I am not going to pay that", and bundle the children into a car rather than send them by bus. The danger is that those who currently travel by bus, who live three miles away and get that bus for free, will come by car in future. We do not know how people will react; it will depend on the style of the pilot. that is an advantage of running pilots, but it may backfire.
Why do we need legislation to run pilots? The Bill is putting the cart before the horse. Normally, you run a pilot and if it is sensible you pass legislation. Here, we are passing legislation to run pilots. Do we need it? The experiment is interesting, but normally we do not need to have legislation to run pilots.
That brings me to my next question. The Minister made it very clear that no local authority would be forced to follow the principles. You can run a pilot, and have a variation in pilots. There may be some backing away from pilots because they do not seem sensible. Over time, we will undoubtedly see what seem to be the most
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successful schemes. However, from what the Minister said and from the Bill, it would appear that there is no obligation on any local authority to move down this route. That is fine. Does it mean that some local authorities can maintain their present arrangements ad infinitum? Do they never have to change, or is the idea that there will be further legislation down the road, in order that what appears to be best practice from the pilots is carried out nationally?
My impression is that the local authorities that have embraced the ideas with alacrity are very much those such as Luton, for which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, spoke. The same is true of the local authority that I represent, Surrey. We had representatives from West Sussex talking to us the other day. Those are all local authorities with a substantial spread of suburbia, where the school run is a very big issue and so they are trying to come up with some innovative ideas to cope with it. The school run here is less than three miles most of the time. We know that the average journey is about two miles. The authorities that are confronted by huge problems as a result are those with substantial rural areas, such as Northumbria, Cumbria and Cornwall. There, children go considerable distances even to their nearest primary school.
There also arises the question of what the Government's objectives are. We are told very firmly that they want to get children to go to the nearest school, to which they can walk or cycle. However, we also had the Government's five-year strategy published last summer, which makes it clear that they are anxious to encourage parents to choose from a diversity of schools and not necessarily for children to go to the school nearest home. That was picked up by the Select Committee in its examination of the Bill when it was in draft form. The committee concluded:
"The Government seems confused as to the objectives of its draft Bill. The Secretary of State has said that it will encourage more children to walk or cycle to their local school, yet this does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference; an approach that encourages greater mobility",
"No charge may be made under the scheme for travel arrangements for children from low income families, unless the child has been given an opportunity to attend a suitable school closer to his home but chooses to attend one further afield".
One comes to the conclusion that there are problems with the Bill. It is difficult to know what its true objective may be. David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that the Bill,
"will cause uproar amongst parents. They will ask whether this is the beginning of an attack on free education. It will be deeply unpopular and could be extremely expensive for those with several children".
One sometimes wonders what the purposes of modernisation are. Perhaps the Bill is yet another move towards modernisation that is actually a fairly fundamental attack on the principles of the welfare state.
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In this case, the principle is free public education. I finish by quoting John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, who said:
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