Sleaford and North Hykeham MP Stephen Phillips has challenged the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, Chris Wormald, on his understanding of challenges faced in rural areas like Lincolnshire.
The Public Accounts Committee has been discussing education and training for 16-18 year olds, and the Permanent Secretary was grilled by members at a sitting this week. The committee had raised the issue of school transport for 16-18 year olds, which is only provided by local councils if they can afford to do so. The point was made that central government expects rural councils to cope with this, without necessarily understanding the distances and costs involved.
Mr Phillips asked whether the Permanent Secretary had ever visited Lincolnshire to see these challenges for himself.
Mr Wormald could not remember having visited Lincolnshire or several other rural counties suggested.
Mr Phillips advised: “It would be a very good idea, if I may respectfully say so, if you took a trip up the A1 — it is only two hours to Lincoln — and had a chat with the county council.”
Mr Wormald replied: “I would be quite happy to visit Lincoln. I do two days of visiting a month, and I try to visit different types of provision in different types of authority. So I have done a range of cities and a range of rural areas.”
Mr Phillips went on: “Contrary to popular belief in Whitehall, Lincolnshire is not in the middle of the North sea; it is only an hour and 20 minutes from King’s Cross.”
Mr Wormald replied: “Yes. As I said, I do a lot of visiting, so I would be happy to come to Lincolnshire.”
Commenting afterwards, Mr Phillips said: “It is ridiculous that those with such power over our lives here in Lincolnshire do not seem to realise that we face distinct challenges as a rural county. I have often said that it appears to me that many of them do not know where Lincolnshire is.
“This policy has affected many in our area, and I want the Permanent Secretary to visit so he can understand for himself the reasons why our County Council is struggling to find the money to provide transport for 16-18 year olds – asking a London authority to provide transport for a teenager to travel two miles is a completely different thing to asking a rural council to provide transport for twenty miles, and the Permanent Secretary needs to understand this if his department is properly to enact policies of this nature.”