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Oral - Launch of the consultation on the Travel for Children and Young People in Education Measure

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Brian Gibbons, Minister for Economy and Transport

I am pleased to announce the publication of draft proposals for this first Assembly Measure. These proposals are about learner travel, an area that has generated considerable interest in the Chamber.

The former Education and Lifelong Learning Committee reported on school transport in 2005. The report’s recommendations attracted interest and support in the Chamber and beyond. In recognition of that, the Assembly Government decided to seek framework powers, which have now been transformed into the proposed Measure before you. We plan to consult on these proposals for a Measure, which I intend to introduce later this year.

The current law on school transport originates in the Education Act 1944. Over the years, case law has built up, statutes have changed, and there is concern that the law for Wales should be clarified and updated. The ELL Committee reported deficiencies. Since then, the Assembly Government has established a stakeholder working group to consider local authority practice and the adequacy of guidance to authorities and schools. From this year we are providing £1 million for each of the next three years to fund joint authority initiatives to improve practice. However, in light of the Assembly’s new powers, it is time to look at the law itself. We pledged in our election manifesto to prioritise school transport in our legislative programme.

Everyone wants school buses to be safe. Thousands of children travel by bus every day. Fortunately, incidents are few, but when they occur, the consequences can be severe and sometimes, sadly, fatal. Good behaviour on buses is essential. Behaviour and safety are intrinsically linked. Many local authorities have introduced codes of conduct already, but there are doubts about whether effective sanctions can be enforced.

I propose that the Measure should require local authorities to have codes of conduct prepared in consultation with stakeholders—most importantly pupils themselves, parents and schools. The codes would be linked to school behaviour policies—already covered by legislation. Headteachers will be able to apply sanctions for bad behaviour on buses, just as if an incident occurs on school premises.

However, safety is not just about behaviour. There has been a lack of legal clarity about what constitutes appropriate school travel arrangements, and I want to address this. I propose that arrangements made by local authorities should only be deemed suitable if they take proper account of safety issues, involve reasonable journey lengths, and do not cause unreasonable levels of stress for pupils.

There has been concern in the Assembly, and throughout Wales, about issues relating to the safety of school buses, such as the use of double-deckers, the application of the three-for-two seating concession, and the availability of seatbelts. I believe that requiring authorities to make suitable arrangements for safety and other issues, and backing that with statutory guidance, as provided for in the proposed Measure, will enable us to achieve significant progress.

However, I recognise that we have neither the executive nor the legislative competence for vehicle safety, construction and operation—these matters have not been devolved from the Department for Transport to the Welsh Assembly Government. This proposed Measure will ensure substantial progress within our existing powers. If the case is made for further transfer of powers, and a further Measure, then we will consider it. However, that should not be a reason for us not to legislate now within our existing powers.

Another issue that I intend to address in this proposed Measure is eligibility for school transport. The current law uses a learner’s age, and the distance travelled, to determine whether someone is eligible for free transport. I do not accept that the age-distance system is out of date. It has stood the test of time and is well understood. An alternative would be means-testing parents. Means testing is complex, divisive and potentially unfair.

 believe that the Measure should provide a core level of entitlement for learners. I do not propose to follow policy in England, which permits local authorities to devise their own travel schemes with charging. Rather, we seek a more consistent, all-Wales approach.
I believe that changes should be made to the age-distance limits. I propose, as a start, to extend entitlement for young children. I propose a 2 mile limit for all primary children—the upper limit is currently eight years of age, beyond which a child is expected to walk 3 miles. Authorities will continue to be able to arrange transport for children who live closer than this, and I encourage them to do so. To assist, I propose to relax restrictions on charging parents, so that authorities will be able to charge for transport for children not eligible for free transport.

I am also aware of the needs of post-16 learners, and the growing importance of early-years education. The needs and travel requirements of these age groups are complex. I propose to include in the Measure, regulation-making powers for both age groups, which would enable Welsh Ministers to make statutory requirements for these age groups as educational arrangements for them evolve.

Local authorities are central to these proposals. I want to make sure that they have the discretion and flexibility to make arrangements that fit local needs. These proposals place emphasis on co-operation between authorities and other bodies. In most cases, it will be enough, but, if not, I want local authorities to have the means to make changes. For that reason, I propose to give them a power to change school start and finish times, to be used if modest changes can make transport arrangements more effective and more environmentally sustainable.

I trust that you will have the opportunity to study these proposals carefully. I am offering a better legislative framework for Wales. I commend these proposals to the Assembly and to the wider public in Wales for consultation.