Poorer Children To Get Free Transport To Schools

Children from poor homes will get free transport to popular schools under plans to weaken the middle-class monopoly on the best classroom places.

Subsidised travel will be introduced to give working-class children access to primary and secondary schools miles from their home.

Councils will also get more money to build cycle lanes and ban parents driving to the school gates – cutting car use on the school run.

Ministers say the plans are designed to open up popular schools in suburbs as well as promoting green transport.

Critics say the move risks penalising wealthy families. Increasing numbers of middle-class parents will be forced to move their children to private schools because they can no longer get into the state primary or secondary of their choice, it is claimed.

The proposals come days after the independent admissions watchdog effectively ended the era in which affluent parents buy their way into good state schools by backing the use of lotteries to allocate places.

Lord Adonis, the schools minister, said last night that transport should no longer be seen as a barrier to parental choice. “No young person should be prevented from going to the school of their choice simply because of travel costs,” he said. “The extended rights to free school travel will give low-income families more choice when applying for schools.”

Ministers are keen to use transport to ensure children from council estates get to good state schools. From September, the most disadvantaged, aged eight and over, will get free bus passes to the “nearest suitable” primary school more than two miles from their home.

In 2008, the right will be extended to secondary school pupils who will get free transport to the three nearest schools between two and six miles away.

The move – part of a radical overhaul of school travel – will apply to those children from families poor enough to qualify for free school meals.

In a further move, 20 local councils will share £21 million over six years to offer subsidised transport for all primary and secondary pupils. Schemes being tested in the areas, which have not yet been named, include the use of modern technology to plan routes and collect fares, staggering school opening hours and offering a mix of free and subsidised travel to children from families according to a sliding income scale.

The shake-up of school travel coincides with the adoption of new rules for admissions, which seek to stop schools “rewarding” families who can afford to move closest to those with the best reputations.

For the first time, it says, schools can allocate places by effectively drawing names out of a hat, a move that has caused uproar in Brighton, the first city to adopt the system. Other schools will be allowed to test children and put them into ability bands – sharing the most and least able pupils in any one area.

The Tories last night gave a cautious welcome to the travel plans. Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, said: “If transport is a hurdle for some children then it is only fair that it is removed by subsidising travel. What we don’t want to see though is a universal system of banding in every school, creating this situation in which children are simply bussed across town in the name of social engineering.”

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: “Parents tend to define a good school by the pupils in it. If children from affluent homes are pushed out of the state school of their choice, parents will be more inclined to go private.”

In a separate announcement yesterday by the Department of Transport and the Department for Children, Families and Schools, councils will be required to promote eco-friendly transport.

As part of a two-year £7.5 million programme, all schools will have a duty to draw up a “travel plan”, promoting green transport, by 2010.

Some councils, including Camden, north London, have already used the extra cash to cut car use by restricting parking near school gates, a move that could be replicated in other areas under the proposals. Other plans include funding for cycle lanes, so-called “walking buses” and car sharing.

In the past 20 years, the number of pupils travelling to school by car has more than doubled. Government research shows 13 per cent of all urban car journeys on weekdays between 8am and 9am involve school runs.

Where did the Cabinet go to school?

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, Kirkcaldy High School (selective state)
Alistair Darling, Chancellor, Loretto, Edinburgh (private)
David Miliband, Foreign Secretary, Haverstock Comprehensive School, London (comp)
Jack Straw, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Brentwood School, Essex (private)
Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, Dyson Perrins High School, Malvern, Worcs (comp)
Des Browne, Defence Secretary, St Michael’s Academy, Kilwinning (selective state)
Alan Johnson, Health Secretary, Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea (grammar)
Hilary Benn, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Holland Park Comprehensive, London (comp)
Douglas Alexander, International Development Secretary, Park Mains High School, Erskine (comp)
John Hutton, Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Secretary, Westcliff High School, Southend (selective state)
Harriet Harman, Leader of the Commons, St Paul’s Girls School, London (private)
Peter Hain, Work and Pensions Secretary, Pretoria Boys High School, South Africa (fee paying)
Ruth Kelly, Transport Secretary, Westminster School, London (private)
Hazel Blears, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Wardley Grammar School, Swinton (grammar)
Geoff Hoon, Chief Whip, Nottingham High School (private)
Ed Balls, Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Nottingham High School (private)
Ed Miliband, Cabinet Office minister, Haverstock Comprehensive School (comp)
James Purnell, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Royal Grammar School, Guildford (private)
Shaun Woodward, Northern Ireland Secretary, Bristol Grammar School (grammar)
Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Leader of the Lords, Upholland Grammar School (grammar)
Andy Burnham, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, St Aelred’s RC High School, Merseyside (comp)
John Denham, Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary, Woodroffe Comprehensive School, Lyme Regis (comp)