Protecting our school transport subsidies

The right to a Catholic education is something we all take for granted. It is often forgotten what a contribution the Church is making financially towards these schools - and what a burden it is lifting off local government as a result. Imagine the cost if they all shut their doors overnight?!

It isn't just about transmitting the tenets of the faith. We know that faith schools of all denominations also tend to offer a more caring, pupil-focused environment. We know also the immense contribution to the local community that Catholic schools can offer. The secularists might grumble, but it is only out of jealousy in my view.

So how crazy and infuriating would it be for Catholic parents to find the sustainability of these excellent schools undermined by an unthinking, secularising impulse on the part of local government? Like many colleagues on all sides of the House of Commons, I have become worried that too many local councils are seeking to cut corners by slashing and even removing subsidies for free home-to-school transport for parents whose children attend Catholic schools.

Here in Lancashire, there were proposals to charge parents £380 per annum to travel to attend faith schools. This affected many parents in my constituency who select a faith-based education, especially those just above the threshold for statutory free provision, and will penalise them disproportionately compared to those parents who choose the nearest non-denominational school.  At a time when faith-based education as a whole comes under sustained and, in my view, undeserved cricitism, I felt this was just wrong. I made my feelings felt, wrote to all the parish priests, heads of local Catholic schools and the County Council, but seemingly to no avail.

So if your nearest Catholic school lies further away than the nearest non-Catholic school, you too may find yourself having to fund the difference. Keep watch, and beware. I have heard of examples in Leicestershire where a school bus route to a Catholic school has been removed, but the remainder have been retained - a potentially anti-religious move. In my view, local government forcing parents to pay more to send their child to a Catholic school but nonetheless willing to fund them if they choose to go to a nearer non-Catholic school is tantamount to trying to eradicate Catholic education.

So I'm pleased to hear that the Children's Minister Tim Loughton is taking a close interest in what is actually happening on the ground. There are ideas out there - giving budgets to schools rather than local authorities, for example, but none would be a silver bullet. Can you imagine a small primary procuring enough buses in a dispersed rural area?

Some good questions are being asked too. Walking routes have to be deemed 'safe' by local authorities, and it seems there are examples of walking routes being described as 'safe' when they are anything but, thus allowing the local authority to escape the transport subsidy. The Catholic Education Service is currently collating good and bad practice, and I am sure they would be keen to hear more about personal experiences at www.catholiceducation.org.uk.

I recognise the financial pressures all local government is working under, the significant cost of providing the service, and the fact that many authorities have had to take these decisions. However, I believe that to implement this change only with regard to those parents of children at faith-based schools is an unacceptable step. It is easily interpreted as an attack on denominational education.

In particular, I know the CES is still trying to collate information on what is happening in some authorities, so if you have been having problems, let them know and they can point you in the right direction.

Remember, local authorities get discretionary transport subsidies. Some of that should be going on subsidising transport to Catholic schools. But it isn't ringfenced, and it's coming under pressure. So the more we know, the more we can work hard to turn things round. Pressure from local schools has already seen some U-turns in some parts of the country. In Leicester, the head at English Martyrs, Marius Carney, launched a highly effective campaign which persuaded the Council to think again. It proves that democracy can work, if parents, teachers, pupils and parishes all make their voices heard. If the Church itself won't defend Catholic education, who will?

Paul Maynard, Member of Parliament for Blackpool North and Cleveleys