David Cameron’s suggestion that free transport to faith schools should be abolished in an attempt to integrate disparate communities could have exactly the opposite effect, the director of the Catholic Education Service warned this week.
In a speech on tackling Islamic extremism, the Prime Minister called for an end to free faith school transport as part of the drive to promote integration. While overall segregation in schooling was declining, he said, “in our most divided communities, the education that our young people receive is actually more segregated than the neighbourhoods they live in.”
He went on: “Bussing children to different areas is not the right approach for this country.”
And although he said he was not suggesting faith schools should be dismantled, and indeed he mentioned having chosen Church of England schools for his own children, he later came under fire from Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, for recommending a policy that could lead to the opposite happening.
The fact was, said Mr Barber, that Catholic schools had long served more ethnically diverse and economically deprived communities, and they played an essential role in integrating minority communities within British society. “David Cameron should applaud the Catholic community and acknowledge that it is their faith that brings together such a diverse mix of pupils,” he said. “School transport and faith-based admissions enable parents from all ethnic, social and economic backgrounds to choose a Catholic school. We are concerned that the removal of free school transport to Catholic schools and a cap on faith-based admissions would impact most on these minority communities and reduce the diversity of our schools.”
In Wales Fr Michael Burke, spokesman for the Diocese of Menevia, said he feared Mr Cameron’s criticism of free faith school transport could again put pressure on the bussing of children to Catholic schools in Wales. In a ruling earlier this summer, the presiding judge of the Wales circuit, Mr Justice Wyn Williams, said Swansea Council’s decision to cut free school transport to faith schools had been unlawful.
But Fr Burke said this week that, welcome though the ruling was, there was still much trepidation in Wales about the future of free faith school transport. “We won the battle but we haven’t won the war,” he said. “We are very aware that the ruling was connected to the fact that the council kept free transport for Welsh-speaking schools – so if it was taken away from them, it could easily be taken away from Catholic schools as well.”
He said Catholic headteachers and education leaders in Wales were very aware that there was still a move to cut faith school transport, and that it was only a matter of time before “they try something else”.
In his speech this week, Mr Cameron said that although he was “the first to support the great education [faith schools] provide”, it was right to look again at how to move away from segregated schooling in Britain’s most divided communities. He went on to reiterate what for Catholic church leaders has been a controversial policy of insisting that all faith academies and free schools must allocate half their places without reference to faith.
As a result of this, the Church does not endorse the creation of new academies.