Costly travel hits the poorest
Fears are mounting that poorer teenagers will be left out of further education because of cuts in spending on student transport.
A survey has revealed that, in half of FE colleges, local authority transport subsidies have been cut - and a quarter have no budget at all for getting their students to and from their homes.
The survey of English colleges by FE Focus and the Learning and Skills Network shows transport provision is patchy around the country.
Some authorities, such as London boroughs, provide free transport to under-19s. In other areas, colleges are commonly spending more than pound;200,000 a year subsidising student transport.
One in five colleges provides its own bus service, for which most charge students around half the cost. One college says it spends pound;420,000 a year on buses.
Principals warn that the local authority cutbacks will hit students from disadvantaged areas, particularly in the countryside. The findings are likely to strengthen calls for a nationally co-ordinated transport policy for FE.
John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said many local authorities spotted the opportunity to reduce post-16 transport provision when they lost control of colleges in 1993. He said: "The Government has introduced tougher legislation in the past few years, but the obligations of LEAs in this field are still not sufficiently defined in law.
"We believe there is still work to be done to create a system in which all students can access affordable transport to and from college.
"We are asking for the law to be better defined and for LEAs to fulfil the obligations as dictated by that law."
The survey found that 28 per cent of colleges now have no local authority subsidised transport. In the last five years, 50 per cent have seen the subsidy decrease, and nine per cent have lost it completely. Eighty-nine per cent of colleges subsidise student transport themselves. Forty three per cent of those provide financial support, 21 per cent provide a bus service and the remaining third mostly offer subsidised or free travel passes.
Meanwhile, some have students travelling up to 60 miles each way to attend further education.
"This is one of the most financially deprived areas in Britain," responded one college principal. "As such, the reduction in subsidy and expected end of subsidy altogether is likely to prevent some of the most needy students from attending. We use learner support funds to subsidise student travel considerably, but these have also suffered significant reduction."
One college expects to see a fall in enrolments as its local authority introduces a pound;300-a-year charge from September. Another complains that its own contributions to transport are about to double from pound;200,000 a year to pound;400,000.
Another says: "This is yet another disincentive to study post-16. We are in a rural area and our poorer students need all the help they can get."
Principals also complain of inconsistent transport policies by LEAs and lack of monitoring by the Learning and Skills Council. "On a national basis, post-16 transport support is a lottery," says one. "There is no system and the publishing of policies on the DfES website is a farce."
Colleges also fear the effect. One principal says that as local government funding and learner support funds decrease, it is becoming increasingly difficult to support learners with transport - putting those from less well-off families at a severe disadvantage.
"Although education maintenance allowance does help, many learners need this income just to afford the basics, such as lunch," he said.
"As students become required to spend a larger proportion of their education maintenance allowance on transport, those from more disadvantaged areas are less likely to be able to afford to come to college, and will therefore end up in the group who are not in education, employment or training."