The government was aware of concerns about the provision of transport to schools and colleges and was considering the matter because practice across the country was inconsistent, junior education minister Stephen Twigg told MPs.
Compulsory school age pupils are entitled to free transport if their nearest suitable school is beyond statutory walking distance from their home. In addition, local education authorities have discretion to provide help with travel in accordance with locally-determined policies.
Charlotte Atkins, Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands, said the policy of charging over-16 students to use school buses that were free before they were 16, first, appeared to be a tax on rural school students; and secondly encouraged congestion around schools because parents - or even pupils themselves - drove themselves to school. It also ran counter to the government's education maintenance allowance initiative to encourage young people to stay in education after school leaving age.
Mr Twigg said that, for example, FE colleges had discretion to use their learner support funds to pay the student transport contribution - some FE colleges in Staffordshire did so, while others did not. That was one of the inconsistencies the government had to address.
Mr Twigg said pathfinder projects were addressing the same issue, and would report later this year. Some of the EMA schemes aimed specifically at funding the higher transport costs in rural areas. 'We will take on board the lessons that can be learned from the pilots as part of the wider evaluation of the education maintenance allowances', he added.
Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, asked the minister to take account of rural sparsity and to review the problems of Devon's education finances, that arose from the county's huge school transport costs.
Mr Twigg said that was one of the factors being considered by government.
He also said he would look at a situation raised by Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, where two non-Catholic children attending a Catholic school in Durham were not automatically entitled to free transport, unlike their Catholic neighbours. He asked whether it was wrong to discriminate on the grounds of religion in that way.
Mr Twigg said he would investigate, but he imagined that, as non-Catholic parents, they would have had the option of another, nearer school. That was how the rules worked at the moment.
Hansard 4 July 2002: Column 383-384