College bus subsidy axe could price Norfolk students out of education
Thousands of Norfolk teenagers who live in rural areas could be priced out of education in the city and larger towns if a proposal to axe a college transport subsidy goes ahead, it was claimed last night.
A city-and-county skills divide could open up if Norfolk County Council implements the idea, which is currently the subject of countywide consultation.
And a significant number of teenagers could drop out of learning at age 16 if they have to pay the full �784 a year cost of a college bus pass - leaving them to 'waste their potential by becoming disaffected and unemployed'.
The claims were made by City College Norwich principal Dick Palmer, two days before hundreds of the college's students will march through Norwich to oppose the possible ending of the subsidy.
The students will march from the college at 11am on Monday, and three hours later will stage a rally at County Hall and hand over a petition.
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For many young people and their parents - who often pick up the cost - the end of the subsidy would mean the bill doubling from September 2012, when the full price is scheduled to start if the council agrees the proposal.
City College student union president and vice president Tom Grant and Tom Hollick said that, without the subsidy, 'many students simply could not afford to make the journey every day'.
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They received strong backing from Mr Palmer, whose lobbying played a key role in forcing a change of mind in 2009 when the county council had proposed to significantly reduce the current subsidy.
He said: 'Post-16 transport support is an investment in the economic future of the young people of Norfolk, not a burden. Norfolk County Council has a duty under the 1996 education act to 'identify the transport needs of students and to ensure that transport is not a barrier to them accessing education and training'. This duty is not discretionary.'
He added: 'One third of our 16-19-year-old students need a bus pass to get to City College. Some young people would inevitably drop out of learning at 16 because of the increased costs of travel and would waste their potential by becoming disaffected and unemployed.
'A sharp increase in travel costs would hit students in rural communities particularly hard. We risk denying these young people access to the skilled opportunities in vocational sectors that are available to their city counterparts.'
He added that public bus routes that relied on student passengers could be 'scaled back or removed' if students were forced out of education by the axing of the subsidy.
Mr Palmer also pointed out that the government had recently abolished the education maintenance allowance, which sees thousands of student paid up to �30 a week to help them to pay further education costs - including 53pc of City College's 16-18 students.
He said: 'Taking away subsidised travel for students is a cut too far that will prevent some of our young people from accessing the skills and training they need to secure their futures.'
The council is currently consulting on a host of possible cost-cutting measures as it seeks to close a �155m gap in its future funding, and has forecast that an end to the subsidy would save �2.5m a year from 2012/13.
Alison Thomas, cabinet member for children's services, said: 'We have been subsiding transport for students to travel to college or sixth form to the tune of �2.5m a year – a greater rate than many other local authorities and a considerable sum for a service that is not statutory.
'We have already had very useful and promising discussions with college principals about how we can work in partnership to find a solution to what is clearly a very important issue for the county's young people and have a further meeting planned for next week.
'We understand that students want to show their feelings about this proposal and would encourage them to respond to our consultation. The fact that Norfolk's young people are so passionate can only be a good thing for the county's future and we recognise and welcome their right to peacefully demonstrate.'
Mr Grant and Mr Hollick said students brought �3,565,000 a year into the local economy, and added: 'This issue is not as romantic as free education, nor as heart-wrenching as the loss of the education maintenance allowance, but this is just as important for the students of the county.'
The two student leaders moved to allay any fears of violence, saying: 'This has been organised with police co-operation. We condemn any violence, and any City College students that are involved in any disturbances will be dealt with by the college and the police.'
Consultation on the proposal runs until January 10, with the council currently talking to scores of organisations. To take part, visit www.norfolk.gov.uk/bigconversation.