Councils around the country continue to target discretionary transport to so-called “faith schools” in their push to cut spending.
Latest are Essex County Council, Cumbria County Council, Suffolk County Council and Wigan Metro Council, which will totally scrap all but mandatory transport subsidies to those who want to send their children to a religious school from 2012.
Dave Hill, Essex County Council’s executive director for schools, children and families, said in a letter to parents that it was not required by law to provide free buses to faith schools. “There are currently tremendous pressures on Essex County Council’s budget,” he said. “We have completed a significant review of our home to school transport policy to ensure the current policy is equitable, supports the most vulnerable and provides the best value for money. The statutory entitlement to free transport will remain unchanged.”
Last week, Durham County Council approved a raft of changes to school transport, which will mean discretionary spending on free transport to religious schools is stopped completely. Members of the Council’s cabinet also agreed to explore the possibility of setting up self-financing concessionary transport schemes. This would be aimed at ensuring that home-to-school transport remains for those attending faith schools and for rural schools and communities, the Council said. It will now be seeking to work with schools, diocesan authorities, parents and other groups to do this.
Meanwhile, the Catholic bishop of Portsmouth has written to the Isle of Wight Council leader expressing “dismay” at proposals to end free travel for religious schools. The Right Reverend Crispian Hollis said removing transport subsidies could “severely impact the future and the flourishing of Christ the King School”. Councillor David Pugh, leader of the council, said all pupils should be treated equally, regardless of religion. A consultation on plans to end the blanket subsidy runs until 4 July.
Bishop Hollis said taking away the travel subsidy would “make life very difficult and may result in families deciding that they cannot afford to send their children to the faith school of their choice”. He added: “I urge you and the council to think again before implementing a proposal which could jeopardise the flourishing and development of Christ the King School.”
The discriminatory aspect that the NSS has highlighted for years is now echoed by Councillor Pugh: “It is not equitable or affordable in the current climate to offer a unique entitlement of free transport to parents and children of a certain religion, which is not made available to others. I’m confident that the vast majority of parents support our approach on this. A lot of councils have already made the change and in a way we’re catching up.”