Diplomas In Rural Areas Threatened By Transport Problems
In the forthcoming months, many colleges are planning to double their enrollment of students for the government’s flagship vocational qualification, the 14-19 diplomas. It is expected that the diplomas will be taught in various locations, requiring students to travel between schools and colleges. However, there are concerns that the cost of transportation will burden rural local authorities, which are responsible for the diplomas after the closure of the Learning and Skills Council last month. Consequently, there is a potential problem of students losing interest in taking the qualification because of the lack of adequate transportation facilities.
While city students can generally travel cheaply, particularly in London, where under-16s have free bus travel cards, rural bus and rail services are relatively expensive and limited, hence the laying on of minibuses for students. Previously, the cost for post-16 learners was divided between local authorities and colleges, depending on location. However, now the financially strained councils would have to pay the total cost of transporting diploma students.
40 councils, which form the Rural Access to Learning Group, wrote to Ed Balls, the school secretary, in March, to express their concerns about the projected substantial increase in their diploma transport costs. The research, conducted for the group, estimates that the number of rural learners travelling for their diploma programmes could increase four to eight times by 2013, incurring an estimated annual additional cost of £50m.
Sean Taylor, the 14-19 access and transport co-ordinator at Somerset City Council, who is also a member of the Ralg policy steering group, outlined the challenge that a large rural council could encounter. He pointed out, "In the first year, we had two principal learning centers, last year it was seven, this year it goes up to 14 and next year to 21. In 2008, there were two diplomas taught, last year we had 16, this year we’ve got 34, and next year we will have 49. The significant exponential rise in the number of centers delivering learning will cause a significant jump in cost."
Further education providers share Ralg’s concerns, with the director of 14-19 curriculum at Yeovil College stating that the worries are mainly about whether the transport infrastructure will be able to accommodate the hundreds of students required to be moved in the future. On the other hand, Cirencester College’s principal, Nigel Robbins, fears that the possibility of insufficient money to fund minibus transport will make some diplomas inviable in rural areas. He clarified, "If young people are unable to access opportunities at my college, only those who can afford to provide their transport, or whose parents can, would be left."
The Association of Colleges is worried about the funding of transport costs for diploma students, particularly for those who study and live in rural areas. A survey conducted in the previous year with many colleges intending to double student numbers highlights 44% of respondents as being worried about transport expenses. Therefore, they remain committed to a sustainable model of delivering diplomas, expressing concern that as student numbers expand, it could become challenging for colleges to continue to fund their travel, which could be damaging to the long-term sustainability of diplomas.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families published its intent of allocating £90m to local authorities to help them deliver the diplomas in March, which includes funding for rural transport. Of the £2.9m transport funding, £37,500 each has been allocated to 40 authorities to provide a 14-19 access and transport coordinator. The rest is meant to boost the "sparsity weighting" in the diploma formula grant to be circulated among rural local authority areas. Ralg claims that more action is necessary to ensure students do not experience subpar provision.