Exclusive: Catholics blast bus ‘tax’ on religious schools

Thomas Rothwell of St. Mary's Catholic School, Menston
Thomas Rothwell of St. Mary's Catholic School, Menston
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CHURCH leaders have launched a broadside against a Yorkshire council which is accused of levying a “tax” on Catholic families over proposals to ditch subsidies for free travel to faith schools.

Plans have been drawn up to axe the payments in the Bradford district for new pupils who would qualify for financial help with travelling to a faith school other than those on free school meals.

But the proposed change to the discretionary school travel policy has met with strong opposition from Catholic organisations and schools.

In a letter to Bradford Council, Caroline Hyde, chairwoman of The Bishop Wheeler Catholic Academy Trust, which manages six schools in Yorkshire, claimed families will be left in “financial difficulties” as parents with three children could be forced to find more than £1,000 a year to meet the costs of travel if the free school transport is cut.

“This policy appears to be based on the assumption that Catholic families will be willing and able to cover these additional costs and in essence this becomes a ‘tax’ on Catholic families,” she wrote.

“This will again be a disproportionate burden placed on Catholic families and one which will be a real challenge to all but those on the highest incomes.”

School chiefs at Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School in Ilkley and St Mary’s in Menston have also spoken out against the plans.

St Mary’s acting co-headteacher, Thomas Rothwell, said: “We are concerned that this new proposal will discriminate against Catholic families who cannot afford to pay the additional transport costs. Should Catholic children not come to St Mary’s, Menston, they may exercise their right to attend Ilkley Grammar School. This may mean there are no longer enough places available there for local children.

“The authority would then have to pay to transport them to the nearest available school, thus negating any cost saving.”

All those who qualify for travel assistance under the law will continue to receive help. The existing policy also offers financial help to qualifying pupils to go to a non-faith school if they do not wish to attend a nearer faith school.

Diocese of Leeds spokesman John Grady said the diocese wanted the status quo to remain.

But Bradford Council, which is among many authorities trying to slash spending by changes to discretionary transport policies, defended the move.

Bradford Council’s assistant director of education and school improvement, Paul Makin, said: “The council needs to develop a policy for school travel that makes the best use of the very limited resources that we will have in the future. We want the policy to be as fair as possible, which is why we have an open consultation on the proposals.”

In December Leeds Council approved a revised policy, paving the way for a phased withdrawal of funding for free school transport to faith schools. Bradford Council’s portfolio holder for Children and Young People’s Services, Coun Ralph Berry, said: “We do not want to have to do this but we are having to live within the very restricted means we have been given by Government.

“A huge number of local authorities are in the same position as Bradford and are seeking to make savings out of school transport budgets at a time of austerity. We are not singling out the Catholic faith – we have other faith denominational schools.”

A Catholic Education Service spokesman said: “We’d urge local councils not to take the soft option of cutting transport to faith schools.

“These schools have larger catchment areas and the cuts have a disproportionate effect upon families’ ability to send children to the school of their choice.”

State ‘should not pay for religion’

The National Secular Society has welcomed the move by Bradford Council saying the proposals will be fairer.

It claimed Yorkshire “should be applauded for proposing the removal of this religious privilege and looking to create a more equitable school transport policy that’s fairer for all families and at the same time removes an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer”.

Campaigns manager Stephen Evans said: “If parents wish to send their children to a school with a particular religious ethos, the associated transport costs should be their responsibility, not the responsibility of the state.”