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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Battles over subsidised transport to faith schools rages all over the country

Efforts by local authorities to cut their budgets have led many of them to reconsider the huge amounts of money they put into subsidising transport for children travelling long distances to “faith schools”.

The NSS has long argued that these subsidies are discriminatory – because they are obtainable only by people who claim to be religious.

But the people who benefit from these large amounts of public money — the churches and parents of children who are being bussed large distances to a faith school — are arguing the opposite. In Manchester, some church leaders are threatening to take Trafford council to the High Court after it suggested that it might cut these free bus passes.

Trafford council wants to withdraw free transport for children not attending their nearest school – apart from the most deprived and those with special needs (as required by law). The move would save the authority £375,000 a year.

But the Catholic Church says it will breach pupils’ human rights, as their nearest school is not always Catholic. It says it was not properly consulted – a claim the council denies. Now the Diocese of Shrewsbury, which covers the four Catholic secondary schools in Trafford, says it has taken legal advice and is considering filing for a judicial review.

It has also made a formal complaint of maladministration to the council – saying the consultation on the matter was not conducted properly.

And in other parts of the country similar controversies have arisen as the churches fight to keep this privilege:

Cheshire

Cheshire East county council, which is in the Shrewsbury diocese, was forced to postpone a similar move after protests from churches.

Wigan

In Wigan, the council is planning to make cuts from September in a bid to save £500,000 a year, and again the churches are trying to get the decision reversed.

Surrey

A Catholic school in Guildford, Surrey, has been forced to cut the bus service it has been running itself after the decision was made to end council-funded transport to faith schools. St Peter’s School in Merrow will no longer be able to afford their buses after July 2012, and have asked parents to help with the cost during the coming academic year.

A spokesman for Surrey County Council said that every child who was entitled to free transport would continue to receive it, but that the council could not afford to continue its own bus routes.

“It costs nearly £2m a year and we can’t provide this travel benefit now for such a small number of children,” he said. “We will do everything possible to help faith schools run their own transport.”

Chester

Chester West and Chester Council (CWaC) is under intense pressure from parents and churches to roll back on its planned cuts to cut faith school bus passes. Hoping to save more than £1million per year, the move would affect those attending faith schools and post-16 students travelling to college from September 2012.

However, members of CWaC children and education scrutiny committee this week voted the proposal be rejected or at least “deferred for a minimum of 12 months”. The Committee had co-opted members from local Church of England and Catholic dioceses as well as parents who would be affected by the changes, so their recommendation is hardly surprising. The committee managed to get its resolution through with a one vote majority.

The planned cuts will be reconsidered at a public meeting on Wednesday 17 August, where many parents and church representatives are planning to attend to lobby for the subsidy to remain.

The recommendation is to be considered by the executive when it takes a final decision on the matter.

Cllr Mark Stocks told the meeting that the Council must find savings of £8.8m over the next three years. He said: “We must make difficult decisions but we will not sacrifice frontline services. We must remember that this is one of the few areas of discretionary spend within the transport policy. Should this be paid for by the local authority to the tune of £1m in these austere times that we currently live, or should these funds be utilised to the best use for all within our community?”

But Councillor Amy Mercer-Bailey said: “Faith is not a choice. This is a huge issue, you can’t play with children’s lives because you are trying to make a budget cut.”

Isle of Wight

On the Isle of Wight, the council has announced that it will postpone a decision on cutting faith school transport for the moment. The council cabinet was due to make a decision on the proposals on August 16, following public consultation, but will instead consider the issue of faith school travel as part of a wider review of the authority’s overall home-to-school transport policy.

A revised policy, taking into account government proposals to amend the schools admissions code, will be brought before the cabinet on August 16, followed by a further consultation period.

Council leader Cllr David Pugh told Wednesday’s full council meeting it was unfair parents choosing a school based on their religion were given a unique entitlement to free transport, which was not available to parents choosing a school based on other factors. It therefore remained the council’s intention to stop providing universal free travel for faith school pupils, he said, but a more flexible policy would be agreed to allow pupils to transfer their entitlement to free travel to another school within their catchment area.

Published Fri, 05 Aug 2011