academy trust

The Department for Education has defended spending more than £500,000 on train tickets that involved first-class travel, claiming it was at times required for staff to avoid unwarranted attention from journalists and the public.

Information released in response to a freedom of information request shows the department spent almost £150,000 on first-class tickets in the past three years, and another £390,000 on journeys that were partially in first class.

The department insisted it looked for the “cheapest option” and said first-class travel was sometimes needed because of “security concerns”, including avoiding unwarranted attention from the press or public.

A spokesperson said employees also sometimes travelled with a minister who was in first class, or a train’s standard class did not have suitable facilities for people with disabilities.

Flight and train tickets were booked “well in advance” to find the cheapest option and “in some instances first-class tickets are often cheaper”.

In its response to the FoI request, the DfE said 80 per cent of the rail tickets were the lowest possible fare.

More than £52,000 was spent on first-class train tickets in 2018-19, up from just under £49,000 the year before and close to £48,000 in 2016-17.

However, the amount spent on journeys that were at least partially first class has fallen to £100,500, down from almost £162,000 last year and £128,000 the year before.

The FOI also revealed the DfE spent £750 on first-class flights this year, but nothing in the previous two years.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it could be “preferable” to travel first class if staff had to complete work during the journey, but added: “It is obviously of paramount importance that travel costs are kept to a minimum, as I am sure the DfE is fully aware.”

The department’s spend on travel is also included in the register of ministerial gifts, hospitality, travel and meetings.

In 2017, the department spent more than £10,000 to send Nick Gibb, the schools minister, on a one-week trip to Australia and Singapore to “reinforce” relationships.

And last year it spent £9,000 to send Lord Agnew, the academies minister, and three advisers on a three-day trip to Argentina for the first G20 Education Ministerial Summit. Agnew flew business class.