Last Friday, the news broke that the government is pushing back the ‘temporary’ suspension of free travel for under 18s in London to after the October half term holidays, instead of bringing it in at the start of the academic year in September, as originally planned.
In many ways this is a welcome announcement. CPAG and many others, including young activists Olivia Faria, Joshua Brown-Smith and Members of the UK Youth Parliament, as well as Partnership for Young London, Citizens UK, the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, have been campaigning hard for the government to drop its plans since June. The fact that the suspension has been delayed shows that our efforts to highlight the impact of the suspension on children and their parents – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – have been successful to some degree.
Reading between the lines of a letter sent from Department for Transport to Transport for London (TfL) on 31st July, the delay seems to be an acknowledgement by the government that the removal of free travel would have seriously disrupted children and young people’s return to school or college and that there would have been huge technical and administrative difficulties for Transport for London, London local authorities and schools and colleges, to have implemented the proposal over the summer holidays.
There is other positive news in the letter: namely that certain children will remain eligible for free travel, including those aged 10 and under, those aged 11-17 who live more than two miles from their school/college and those aged 11-17 who live less than two miles away from their school/college if they have specific vulnerabilities, such as a medical condition or lack of mobility, or an Education, Health and Care Plan.
CPAG welcomes these exemptions from the suspension, however we are concerned that they do not go far enough. What's more, the proposal still raises a number of issues.
What about low income families?
CPAG and others have been saying all along that the suspension will hit the poorest families in London the hardest, and this still seems to be the case. There is no specific provision for low-income families in the new proposal – just for those who live less than two miles away and have specific needs or vulnerabilities. While the children who fall into the latter categories are of course in huge need and very likely to be disadvantaged, there is no provision for other children who are disadvantaged by living in relative poverty in London and cannot afford to travel around the capital.
The government wants the suspension to come into effect on 2nd November, just as the nights are drawing in, but this is still an ambitious date for the necessary resources, systems and processes be put in place in time. London local authorities will need to update their school travel policies and carry out the necessary consultations on them with schools, colleges and parents during term time, while TfL, working with councils, will need to identify the children who are entitled to free school transport and administer the system. This seems like a heavy burden on schools, councils and TfL, for what is intended to be a temporary measure while they are all working hard to resume business as usual in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many families have made school choices (i.e. for this September) already, based on the understanding that their children can travel for free. However, many will have their travel plans disrupted after just half a term. Families also have to make secondary school applications for 2021 places before the end of October, and sixth forms usually start accepting applications in September. So it’s possible that students choosing between a secondary school or sixth form that is within two miles of their home and another that is further away will be making that decision in September based on little information about long-term travel costs.
Free travel outside of school/college hours
It is still unclear whether those who are eligible for free travel will only be able to use it for trips to and from school or college, or if they will also be able to use it for other activities, such as work-based placements, training, apprenticeships, cultural and leisure activities and seeing friends or family – all of which are hugely important for young people’s development, mental health and success.
A number of other questions remain, such as when will the ‘temporary’ suspension end? Where is the equality impact assessment that has been promised by the government and what is the proposed fare structure for those who have to pay?
London’s parents, children and young people need to know.