BUDGET: Labour slams ‘out of touch’ Tory MPs for trumpeting free transport for poorest grammar pupils - when it already exists in Kent

PUBLISHED: 09:18 09 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:18 09 March 2017

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond gestures while making his Budget statement to MPs in the House of Commons.  Photo: PA Wire

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond gestures while making his Budget statement to MPs in the House of Commons. Photo: PA Wire

Kent County Council offers “transport assistance” to children from low income families who are entitled to receive free school meals

Conservative Kent MPs have been been slammed as “out of touch” for trumpeting the chancellor’s announcement of free transport for the poorest grammar school pupils - when it already exists in the county.

In his spring budget on Wednesday afternoon, Philip Hammond said he would extend free transport for all children on free school meals, or whose parents are on the Maximum Working Tax Credit, to their closest selective schools, if it is between two and 15 miles away from their home.

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Hammond said: “We understand that choice is the key to excellence in education.

“But we recognise that for many parents the cost of travel can be a barrier to exercising that choice.

“Pupils typically travel three times as far to attend selective schools, so we will extend free school transport to include all children on free school meals who attend a selective school.

“Because we are resolved that talent alone should determine the opportunities a child enjoys.”

The announcement received the backing of Ashford MP and work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, who tweeted: “Hugely welcome in Kent,” while Damian Collins added: “Providing extra support for children on free school meals to travel to selective schools is great news for families in #Folkestone”.

However, official Kent County Council documents say children in the care of KCC and children from low income families, who are entitled to receive free school meals, will receive transport assistance to the nearest grammar school in a number of circumstances.

KCC says to receive transport assistancem the child must have met the entry requirements of the grammar school, have been offered a place at the school, the school must be the nearest school of that type to their home and the distance from their home and the school must be between two and 15 miles.

It is understood the local authority currently receives just over £1m so any extra government cash to help subsidise this service will be welcomed.

In response, deputy Labour leader on KCC, and Sittingbourne councillor, Roger Truelove, told Kent News: “The council does give free transport to free school meal children even if the grammar school is not the nearest available school, and from September that will also include children qualifying for pupil premium.

“There was a select committee of the KCC last year, chaired by [Conservative KCC councillor] Jenny Whittle and on which I was the one Labour member, that looked into the whole question of lack of social mobility in grammar school places in Kent.

“This announcement really is not anything to be welcomed in Kent and I don’t know why Damian Green calls it good news.

“They clearly don’t know what the KCC policy is and they appear to be out of touch.”

The chancellor’s announcement came as part of a larger investment in education, in which Mr Hammond has pledged more than half a billion pounds to be pumped into creating new free schools, including grammars, and refurbishing existing school buildings.

However, the creation of a new generation of grammar schools was branded a “vanity project” by Jeremy Corbyn.

“Over the coming years the schools budget is being cut by eight per cent,” the Labour leader said.

“Does the chancellor really want fewer teachers and teaching assistants, larger classes, shorter school days? Which is it?

“I agree with the prime minister that every child deserves a decent education, every community deserves decent schools.

“You do it by working with those communities to provide those schools, not planting into them selective schools which are not being demanded by those communities.

“The money announced by the prime minister for new grammar schools is, frankly, a vanity project. Cancel this gimmick, reject selection and segregation.”

£500m will also be pumped into Further Education colleges under the chancellor’s plans, coinciding with National Apprenticeship Week, in which Kent County Council leader Paul Carter outlined an intention to double the number of apprentices working with Kent employers by 2020.

New ‘T-levels’ for 16 to 19 year old technical students will be introduced from autumn 2019 in which students will be able to choose from 15 different routes such as construction, digital or agriculture.

The number of hours of training for these students will increase by over 50 per cent, the goverment says, and as part of the course, all students will take part in an industry work placement.

The government will also provide maintenance loans for students doing higher-level technical courses at National Colleges and Institutes of Technology – like those available to university students.

Graham Razey, principal of Canterbury College and East Kent College, said: “This new funding is going to help deliver the skills our economy needs to continue growing.

“With the backdrop of Brexit, it is fantastic news that the government is investing in technical education, particularly given the productivity drop in the UK over the past two decades.

“It’s also great news that T-Levels will be introduced, helping to ensure that technical and vocational training have the same parity as an academic education.

“This will ensure all of our young people have the same opportunities to achieve their potential.”

Elsewhere, the crisis in social care in England has forced Mr Hammond to pledge an extra £2 billion over three years to help ease the pressure.

The money, with £1 billion promised in 2017/18, follows intense pressure from MPs and councils in Kent and Medway, but falls short of the levels of funding demanded by some campaigners.

Mr Hammond acknowledged the system was “clearly under pressure”, with the NHS suffering as a consequence.

He said that, alongside the additional funding, health secretary Jeremy Hunt and communities secretary Sajid Javid will announce measures to identify and support councils which are “struggling” and to ensure more “joined-up working” with the NHS.

The chancellor also announced a £100 million plan to ease the pressure in A&E units.

Council funding is set to be boosted by retention of business rates over the coming years, but Mr Hammond attempted to offer some help for firms facing steep increases.

Funding for local authorities will allow them to provide £300 million of discretionary relief to provide help to businesses most affected by the revaluation.

And from April 2017, pubs with a rateable value up to £100,000 will be able to claim a £1,000 business rates discount for one year.

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