The law in England states that a person aged between 16 and 18 must be in full-time education or training, but the harsh reality of public transport cuts over the last decade have made adhering to that rule extremely difficult for those in rural areas.
According to the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), over 300,000 children and 50,000 sixth form or college students have lost their access to public transport since 2008 – the equivalent of 10,000 single decker buses per day.
The same research found that two-thirds of local authorities no longer provide any free bus or train services to people over the age of 16, and the loss of school transport is estimated to have resulted in more than 100 million additional car journeys each year.
CBT Public Transport Campaigner Lianna Etkind paints a grim picture: “I think what it comes down to is that there have been so many cuts to local government and local authorities have extremely squeezed budgets as a result.
“Many of them have decided to cut back on school transport to respond to this, right back to the statutory minimum, without considering the knock-on effect, not only for children and their families, but also for people who don’t have children who will still have to put up with the increased congestion in the area.”
Aside from the heightened risk of air pollution, Etkind adds that the lack of public transport provision is removing any element of choice for parents when it comes to deciding what school or college their child attends.
“For many parents, the decision whether to work or take their children to school is becoming a distinct standoff. In some instances, they also have to be more restrictive in choosing what school or college they can realistically reach nearby.”
Etkind is quick to point out that the limited public transport services can also contribute to enervating social mobility. “We’ve seen case studies where young people have managed to get onto prestigious internships and placements, but haven’t been able to get to the companies on time because the buses in their local areas didn’t start running until after they were meant to have arrived at work. Likewise, a bus service finishing too early has meant that some students miss out on after school or extracurricular clubs and we all know how important these can be in terms of UCAS points and accessing the top universities.”
Congestion, Etkind continues, also carries a considerable risk to people’s safety: “Very often in rural areas, the walking route is just not safe and people having to cross major roads or walk through the countryside in the dark are going to be in real danger. Equally, the more cars you have on narrow roads, the more likely you are to see collisions.”
So, what does CBT recommend? Etkind suggests that the government extending statutory school and transport provision up to the age of 18 and a consistent national concessionary fares scheme for young people would be a good start.
Sustained cuts, she warns, will only serve to compound myriad social problems, beyond the education sphere – such as isolating rural citizens – and increased car usage will not only ramp up pollution levels but render many transport operators commercially unviable. The current 16-25 rail card, she highlights, is not permissible to use during peak hours, which is exactly when young people need to use their discounts the most.
While Etkind concedes that “inherent limitations in terms of population densities,” mean it is unrealistic for rural areas to ape the frequency of public transport in London, she wants to see a concentrated effort to improve the quality and reliability of what services are on offer.
“The argument that people won’t use public transport anyway falls a little flat. Right now, there simply isn’t a sufficient or affordable service for them to use; if it improves, then we are likely to see a greater willing from students and the wider public alike.”
It is important to realise, however, that London – though considerably better equipped to respond to public transport demands – is not immune to many of the challenges that Etkind identifies. In the city, the school run is similarly undermined by personal car journeys, adding to the problem of inner-city air pollution.
Clare Mulholland, Schools and Young People Programme Manager at Transport for London (TfL), is committed to combatting congestion in the capital. So, what does she think are the causes behind it? “A lot of parents have a perception that it’s safer and it’s a choice of comfort and convenience, but we’re aiming to challenge perceptions around time, because often it can be as quick to walk or take public transport.”
Using a Zip Oyster photo card, 16 to 18-year-olds in London can travel at a half adult rate on all TfL services, while 11- to 15-year-olds can travel for free on buses and at half price on the tube. Children between the ages of five and 10 are exempt from TfL fares completely. Although Mulholland is proud of the public transport London has to offer – “we do want people to have a choice” – she is fully aware of the importance of reducing “needless” traffic on the roads.
Donna Harman, Project Manager for TfL’s STARS programme, agrees. “STARS is TfL’s accreditation scheme for schools and colleges. It’s designed to encourage young Londoners to travel sustainably, actively, responsibly and safely by championing active travel behaviours like walking and cycling. It aims to improve pupils’ wellbeing as well as reducing congestion at the school gates and improving road safety and air quality.”
As much as anything else, Mulholland says, travelling to school is a social experience while growing up. “I think there is something symbolic about it and being independent, young people taking those journeys to school with their friends, talking on the way, are going to find it more enjoyable than simply being ferried from A to B in a car.”
Ultimately, The Education Act of 1944 introduced compulsory secondary education and since then local authorities have had a responsibility to ensure that students can access schools, regardless of their means or place of residence. A commitment to this must remain a priority, therefore, for both rural and urban areas.