North Norfolk college bus fees anger
Young people in rural north Norfolk could be hit the hardest by a 'damaging and short-sighted' proposal to axe a post-16 education transport subsidy, Paston College's principal claimed.
Peter Mayne said the plan – which would see the annual train or bus pass for students double to �784 – would 'kick into touch' efforts to get more young people to stay in education after leaving school.
He said the 'unfair' idea would 'discriminate' against young people in rural areas, who had no choice except to travel significant distances to get to college.
Mr Mayne also hit out at the government's decision to abolish the education maintenance allowance (EMA), which sees young people from lower income families given up to �30 a week to help them afford to stay in education.
He said 46pc of Paston College's 750 students currently received EMA, and said the combination of its demise and the axing of the transport subsidy would leave some of the hardest-pressed families to find an extra �1,500 a year.
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The college has taken a strong campaigning line against the subsidy cut, which is among a host of possible savings contained in Norfolk County Council's Big Conversation consultation.
With less than a month to go for people to have their say, Mr Mayne is rallying students and parents to lobby their local county councillors about the proposal.
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He said: 'The proposal to withdraw or seriously reduce the current subsidy to young people travelling to learn post-16. coinciding as it does with the demise of the EMA, will not only kick into touch the target of increasing participation post-16 but will seriously destabilise the post-16 provider network in the county.'
He said it would 'damage' Paston College, which had worked with local bus and train providers to design services that tied in with college times and enabled more young people to access post-16 education.
Mr Mayne said: 'We believe that the county proposal is a seriously damaging and short-sighted plan. It will not save money. Post-16 transport support is an investment in the economic future of our young people and our area.'
He added that it would contribute to rising youth unemployment, which would cost the government more in benefits, and would create 'social discontent' among young people who 'inevitably' would have to drop out because education was unaffordable.
It was also 'bad for the environment' because it would increase car journeys, could increase average bus journey prices because of increased empty seats on existing services, and would 'reduce choice', encouraging young people to make post-16 choices on the basis of how close they lived to a college, rather than on the quality of courses it offered.
Mr Mayne's comments echoed those made last week by City College Norwich principal Dick Palmer, who said thousands of Norfolk teenagers in rural areas could be priced out of education in the city and larger towns - creating a potential city and county skills divide.
Paul Morse, Liberal Democrat county councillor for North Walsham, said: 'This subsidy has long been on the Tory hit list. Conservatives don't understand rural areas, the ambitions of young people or the financial challenges that rural people face.
'This comes on top of the abolition of the EMA and put together I think it's going to have a devastating effect on the stay-on rate for people in rural areas.'
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 are continuing to have 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.
'As part of the Big Conversation we want to know which of our services people value the most. We welcome the views of students, colleges and parents and would encourage them to respond.'
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.