Ending of transport subsidies outrages religious

Catholic parents in Hampshire, Durham, West Sussex and Suffolk are protesting because they will have to pay the transport costs of their children to go to religious schools as local authorities cut back on subsidies.

One mother, Helen Tyler in Hampshire, has branded the plans “discriminatory”, complaining that he will be forced to pay more than £2,000 over 12 months to send her daughter and three sons to their nearest Catholic secondary school — Oaklands in Waterlooville — compared with the £380 she paid this year.

Her children are among 808 who benefit from subsidised travel to faith schools, which the council wants to scrap to make £325,000 savings. Mrs Tyler claimed: ‘We are being discriminated against because of our faith.”

County education boss Cllr Roy Perry said the council had to make £20m savings out of the children’s service budget. He said: ‘This proposal is not intended to be discriminatory – some people would argue giving extra benefits to faith school pupils to get heavily subsidised travel to a school far away from their home is an additional benefit and at taxpayers’ expense. However, I have to stress proposals are still under consultation and all views will be taken into account.’ Consultation ends on 8 April.”

As Durham County Council also moves towards removing the subsidies, Maria Matthews, headteacher at St Bede’s Catholic School, in Lanchester, has written to parents calling for urgent action. The proposals were “largely prejudicial against Catholic families”, she wrote, adding: “St Bede’s must not become a school for families who can afford the bus fare.”

Durham County Council, which faces cuts of £125m over four years, wants to cut £5.5m from its home-to-school and college transport budget, including more than £1m from faith school transport. Council chiefs are proposing to axe such free transport from September next year, except where legal requirements exist (for the children of less well-off families, for example). The Consultation closes on Tuesday, 10 May. For more information, call 0191-383-4490 or visit http://durham.gov.uk/.

West Sussex council is also proposing to cut transport subsidies to faith schools and is presently consulting on the matter. So is Suffolk County Council where a protest group called Parents Against Public Transport Cuts has been formed. One member, Eleanor Davison, whose three daughters attend St Louis Middle School, said: “These proposed cuts and additional charges effectively put a stop to parental choice for those of a lower or lower-middle income. Those who send their children to the Roman Catholic schools in Bury usually have very strong religious reasons for doing so. Many families will be unable to afford to send their children to their nearest faith school.” The consultation can be accessed here.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “Cries of discrimination are misplaced when you consider that these subsidies are a privilege reserved for religious people alone and are of questionable legality. Apparently not satisfied with the provision of segregated schooling at taxpayers’ expense, these vested interests think we should also pay huge amounts to transport the children large distances to get to them. The ending of this scandalous discrimination is long overdue. It is just a shame that it took a financial crisis to bring it about.”