- Conscience and the Commons
Following his election as Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron was grilled by the media about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian. Has the focus on faith, which began with Tony Blair, reached the point where it is harder than ever to hold religious beliefs and play an active role in political life?
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Free transport to and from faith schools has effectively been scrapped in England’s countryside, according to an investigation by The Tablet.
Findings from calls to 28 county councils this week reveal that all of them now require most parents to pay all or part of the cost of transport provision to schools that are not nearest to their homes, or in some cases make their own arrangements.
This especially hits those at faith schools as they are rarely the nearest schools to a child’s home, and has provoked fears that Catholic parents living in rural areas will be deterred from sending their children to Catholic schools, particularly if they have more than one child of school age.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Education Service (CES) said it was “deeply concerned about the impact of cuts to home-to-school transport on parental choice. The Catholic Church has a preferential option for the poor and additional transport support for low-income families is essential to ensure that their choice is not undermined by large transport costs, especially given the traditionally larger size of Catholic families and the 10 times larger catchment areas of Catholic schools.”
By law, local education authorities must provide free transport to a child’s nearest school if that school is beyond a walking distance of two or three miles depending on the age of the child. However, prior to 2007, almost all county councils provided discretionary free transport to pupils attending a faith school if it was not their nearest school.
County councils continue to provide free transport to pupils from low-income families attending faith schools up to 15 miles from their home; those with no religious preference are given free transport up to 8 miles. Such families are defined as those in receipt of the maximum level of working tax credit, or whose children are entitled to free school meals.
Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire were the first county councils to end free transport to faith schools in 2007, followed by Dorset, Lincolnshire and West Sussex in 2008. The number snowballed over the next four years, with at least 18 county councils ceasing to provide free transport between 2009 and 2012.
In some instances, county councils initially agreed to meet some of the cost of transport to faith schools but the subsidies are falling and in some cases disappearing altogether.
Cambridgeshire children returning to school this September will have to make their own travel arrangements after their home-to-school transport, which has been annually increasing in cost to a price of £647 last year, was withdrawn.
Meanwhile children in Leicestershire who paid £252 last year will pay £450 this year and £640 next year, and children starting school in 2015 will be given no transport at all, with parents required to make their own travel arrangements. This will also be the case from 2015 in Derbyshire, despite huge opposition from families who send their children to faith schools.
Derbyshire County Council’s consultation on the issue of free school transport last year found that 87 per cent of faith school users who responded “strongly disagreed” with the proposed cuts, along with 62 per cent of non-users. Parents of children in Essex have been making their own arrangements since 2012.
County councils cutting their subsidy for faith school transport include Dorset (which initially charged £208 per child per year and now charges £450) and Lancashire (which initially charged £380 and now charges £475, which will continue to increase beyond inflation). Parents in Somerset paid £238.70 for the transport until this year and will now pay £602.25.
Councils ending free faith school transport say that special provision for religious pupils was discriminatory, and that their new policies are fairer. But Durham County Council is now supporting parents anxious to avoid sending their children to a faith school. It is providing free transport to these families if their nearest school is a faith school.
The pattern of cuts is likely to be replicated in Wales. In July Swansea Council voted to cease providing free transport to faith schools from September 2015, as has Neath Port Talbot.