At the end of Year 11, I got a proper say in my education for the first time. For me, the choice was pretty simple: my local sixth form, which offered a small range of A-Levels; or the big FE College, 40 minutes down the road. The local sixth form didn’t offer the course I wanted so it seemed obvious where I would go. Luckily for me, my parents could fork out the £515 for an annual bus pass - I didn’t have to think about it.
For many of my peers, it wasn’t so simple.
That’s because when the government raised the participation age to 18, requiring young people to stay in education or training, they didn’t raise the age of statutory transport subsidies. Essentially, if you couldn’t afford travel post-16, you were left in the hands of squeezed local councils that had no legal obligation to help. For thousands of young people in places like Cornwall, where I grew up, this is a huge problem.
So, what if you’re sick of school and want to get into the world of work? Chances are you’ll take an apprenticeship. But on £3.70-an-hour-exploitation-wages, you can’t expect to be rolling in cash. With no support at all from the Council, bus fares can make a big dent. A standard annual pass from First Kernow costs £950, and that’s just if you’re lucky enough to live on a bus route.
If apprenticeships don’t appeal to you, but you don’t want to do A-levels, a vocational course is your next port of call. In Cornwall, that means one of the big FE Colleges. But again, how are you supposed to get there? The vast majority of college students take the bus, with travel times regularly up to two hours. Faced with unreliable services, long journey times and a £400-£500 bus pass, the nearest FE College can feel a million miles away. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a bus stop in your village.
Whatever you decide to do post-16, transport costs are increasingly a consideration. Sixth forms in Cornwall are closing, meaning more students travelling further from home. In this context, we can’t rely on councils to provide transport for students. Cornwall Council recently announced that it’s looking to increase the cost of travel passes from £398 to as high as £600. As you’d expect, this was met by resistance from students and parents. The Council was quick to point out their counterparts in Devon were already far less generous, with a travel pass costing around £530. This year, Devon scrapped its travel pass scheme entirely, with parents and young people expected to make their own arrangements.
This is a massive hole in education policy. Once you reach 16, you are pushed over a cliff - forced to stay in education but with no support to get there. Some bursaries exist and some schools offer extra support but this safety net is patchy. The government shifts the responsibility on to councils and in turn councils leave it to schools. With no funding made available and no statutory requirements, 16-18 transport subsidies are top of the list of council cuts. Young people from poorer backgrounds, from the most isolated communities and studying vocational courses - already the groups most likely to struggle in education - are made to take the strain.
North Cornwall has the second highest average travel distance for 16-18 year olds in the country - 23 miles, but the problem is by no means unique. Research carried out by the Association of Colleges found that over half of FE students cannot always afford their travel costs.
As for me, I loved my time at college. I studied subjects that weren’t available at sixth form and went on to study them at university. As much as I complained about the bus journey every day, I was blessed to have a bus stop near home and parents who could afford the bus pass. If it weren’t for that, I can say for certain I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Labour’s plan to give under-25s free bus travel would be life-changing. At 16, our choice of education shouldn’t be dictated by transport costs. Free bus travel would tackle educational inequality and transform rural communities. Free travel would mean more young people using buses, leading to better services and coverage, connecting the most isolated rural communities. It would take cars off the road, helping to tackle climate change, and create a generation of public transport users.
In a Britain of spiralling living costs, insecure employment and massive inequalities, free bus travel is the sort of radical policy that will redress the balance.