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Transport no joy ride in the country

A bus service is vital for attracting pupils to rural schools, but the costs are high. Stephen Hoare reports.

Art student Gemma Crosby has a journey even the most seasoned commuter would find daunting.

Leaving home in St Neots at 7.15am, she travels by train to Peterborough in time to pick up the college bus at 7.40am, bound for Isle College, Wisbech. It is a 75-mile round trip, but Gemma's journey is nothing unusual for students in rural colleges who are travelling increasingly long distances to find suitable provision.

This is a social inclusion issue as much as it is a transport problem, and it is a major concern for Isle College, which serves a dispersed Fenlands community.

College principal Mark Taylor says: "Our catchment is 80,000 people, spread across 200 square miles. It's an area of significant deprivation and disadvantage, and transport is a significant concern."

Half of the college's 700 full-time students come in on the college bus service - 11 routes run by a local bus company, under contract. The college administers bus passes and students normally contribute pound;150 of the pound;222 needed for an annual ticket.

Mr Taylor has tried every trick in the book to widen participation and has set up outreach centres in every main Fenland town to attract and retrain adults, mainly in IT skills.

But, for most full-time students there is no alternative to the journey to Wisbech, which is the only college in a 40-mile radius offering the full range of courses.

Gemma's journey is longer than most. She travels from the neighbouring county of Huntingdonshire, because Isle College is a centre of excellence for art and design, graphics and multi-media.

The whole issue of transport in rural areas raises serious concerns. A recent report by left-leaning think tank, The Institute for Public Policy Research, found that some regions of Britain have lost two-thirds of their bus passengers in the past decade, leading to route closures.

In areas of rural poverty, where car ownership is low and bus services few and far between, colleges have no choice but to provide transport for students.

The Learning and Skills Development Agency has also highlighted the issue. Its recent report, Student Transport: Unfair or Just Unequal? by Mick Fletcher and Gordon Kirk, highlights a lack of funding and a confusion between basic access to further education and being able to attend a chosen college.

The reportconcludes: "Student transport is ready for reform. There are significant differences students can expect among LEAs, different institutions and various parts of the country. The differences do not appear to relate to student need. College access funds are a partial solution, but they do not meet the needs identified by the colleges."

The Association of Colleges' response has been to help the colleges help themselves. Mark Taylor is chairman of the Smaller Colleges Federation, within the association. He heads a committee of rural college principals who share best practice and attempt to lobby on the issue.

Colleges do not receive separate funding for transport. But, according to a Learning and Skills Council spokesman, the cost is built into the package agreed with each college. This includes limited access funds available for disadvantaged students.

Many principals say that they either subsidise transport or lose students. Peter Stewart, principal of West Anglia College, Kings Lynn, says: "If we didn't pay for transport we would recruit far fewer students and there would be much lower participation."

College principals also have to make painful choices between paying for transport or cutting courses, because the numbers do not stack up. "It's hard for a college like ours to sustain full-time courses, says Mr Stewart.

"When he took up his post, the college was running its own fleet of 35 buses, at a cost of pound;250,000 a year. Over the past three years he has cut the college contribution to pound;100,000 and the bus service is now run by the county council and shared with schools.

He has put the savings back into the curriculum and has also opened small local learning centres to help attract adult part-time students.

Derwentside College in Consett has discovered yet another solution to its transport problems. It has saved pound;100,000 a year by scrapping its elderly bus fleet and retaining a 53-seat single-decker coach through public tender. The college offers training courses for locals who want to take their public carrying vehicle PCV licence.

Rob Richardson, the transport manager, says: "We make an pound;18,000 a-year profit from running bus driving courses."

David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says: "This is a genuine concern. There is no direct funding for college transport, but to get widening participation colleges have got to physically bring students to the door."

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