Since the majority of school visitors have historically come from Greater London and the south east, the scheme was piloted in an effort to enable more young people living outside this region to visit the Houses of Parliament.
The scheme, which offers a subsidy of up to 50 per cent of the travel costs for most areas outside the south east, rising to 75 per cent for those furthest from the capital, was booked out within hours of becoming available for visits this summer. It has attracted applications from schools as far away as Sutherland in Scotland, and Llanelli in Wales.
Over 150 schools will benefit from the first phase of the scheme. Whereas in the past, 70 per cent of schools came from Greater London and the south east, now almost 70 per cent of participating schools have come from outside this region.
Frank Doran, MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Administration Committee, which approved the scheme said:
"There is no better way to learn about British democracy than visiting the Houses of Parliament. Members of the committee recognised the need to find ways to encourage more young people from across the UK to have the opportunity to learn first-hand about the work of MPs.”
The scheme will run until May 2009 to try and determine the extent to which travel costs are the main barrier to schools making the visit to Parliament.
When they arrive at the Palace of Westminster, pupils receive a tour and a workshop based on the political literacy and citizenship education requirements of the National Curriculum. Themes include: law making, voting and the general election process, and getting your voice heard. Where possible a meeting with their local MP is scheduled into the visit.
Ten pupils from Kinlochbervie High School, in Sutherland, Scotland will be coming further than most. This is the UK mainland’s most north-westerly school from where the journey to London is a 1,300 mile round trip. It will require a two and a half hour minibus ride to Inverness then an overnight sleeper for a 13 hour rail journey to the capital.
Head teacher of Kinlochbervie High School, Dr Ian Smith, said:
"There is absolutely no doubt that without this subsidy we would not be coming down to London to visit the Houses of Parliament. I think it is vital that children get a clear idea about how this country works. This visit will give them an interest in the work of Parliament for now and the rest of their lives."
Teacher Penny Jenner is organising a trip for 47 pupils from 12 primary schools in the Bath and north east Somerset area, as part of the Network Learning Bath Pupil Parliament. She said:
“Although citizenship is in the curriculum, it can be quite difficult to teach without these practical experiences. Many of the children will have never visited London before and a visit like this puts it into perspective. The scheme has meant that we have not had to ask for parental contributions in these difficult financial times."
The first schools visiting Parliament using the travel subsidy scheme arrived on May 1. The subsidy scheme is a time limited project with a fixed budget and is available only to state schools. Schools can only claim for one visit of up to 32 pupils during the pilot period.
Booking for the two pilot terms has now closed and evaluation of the project is now in progress.
Image: Parliamentary copyright