Catholic schools bus fare row erupts

Faith with her son Josh and Rachel with her daughter Zara face increases to their school transport costs.
Faith with her son Josh and Rachel with her daughter Zara face increases to their school transport costs.

Children who attend the Ribble Valley’s only Catholic secondary school are facing financial and religious discrimination, according to local MP Nigel Evans.

And Mr Evans has asked the leader of the House of Commons, Mr Andrew Lansley MP, for a debate on why parents who send their children to St Augustine’s RC High School, Billington, have to pay for their bus fares.

Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Evans said: “Parents came to see me because they want to send their children to the Catholic school, St Augustine’s, in Billington. As they have to pass a non-faith-based school, they will get no support whatever for travel costs, and it will cost parents hundreds of pounds. Financial discrimination is religious discrimination and that should not happen.”

He added: “I find it to be a ridiculous situation that parents are financially penalised for exercising choice in their children’s education and hope a solution to this can be found, as there will clearly be other cases of this nature in the Ribble Valley and across Britain.”

Two of Mr Evans’ constituents, Rachel Stanworth and Faith Venguedasalon, whose children attend St Augustine’s, are lobbying for change after Lancashire County Council increased the cost of their children’s transport to school.

Faith (41), a teaching assistant at St Michael and St John’s RC Primary School, Clitheroe, explained she had been paying £380 for her son Elliot’s bus fare to St Augustine’s. However, following a consultation exercise by LCC, this bill will increase to £475 a year from September.

Elliot (12) is in Year 8 at St Augustine’s. His brother Josh (11) is due to start St Augustine’s in September meaning Faith, of Newton Street, Clitheroe, will be faced with an annual bus fare bill of £950.

“I feel like I am being penalised for sending my child to a Catholic school,” she said.

Rachel Stanworth (40), of Mytton View, Clitheroe, is also angry at the increase and described public consultation by LCC as a “joke”. Her daughter Zara (13) is in Year 9 at St Augustine’s while her son Matty (eight) is a pupil at St Michael and St John’s.

Rachel said she objected to having to pay for her children’s school transport when the charge was introduced three years ago, but was ignored.

“It’s our nearest Catholic high school and we are being penalised,” said Rachel, an assistant practitioner for the NHS community/rehabilitation team, “They’re saying either pay the bus fare or send them to a non-catholic school.

“Apart from the fact it’s a lot of money, it is the principle. As always it seems to be the working class families who seem to be hit the hardest.”

Head teacher of St Augustine’s RC High School, Michael Wright, said a number of parents had contacted school about the increased fees with “very real concerns”. “Under the changes made by Lancashire County Council, families now have two choices: to move their children to schools which would not be their first preference, or to find the cost of transport themselves,” he said.

“While those on the lowest incomes will continue to receive free transport, the increased charges will undoubtedly cause financial difficulty for many families, particularly those with more than one child. We have already seen an increase in families choosing to transport their children to school by car, impacting on already congested routes at peak times, even where car-sharing arrangements are used. This is likely to worsen from September when there will be a 25% rise in the cost of the bus pass.

“It is a shame Lancashire County Council has chosen to address their funding difficulties by applying charges to families who have chosen a faith-based education. I am sure many of these families will be disappointed by the dismissive attitude of the council towards the consultation and wonder where the council’s priorities lie when reflect on the sums of money spent on recent partnership agreements.”

However, County Coun. Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, has defended the council’s decision.

“As things stand, the county council continues to bear more than half the cost of transporting pupils to faith schools, so we can hardly be accused of religious discrimination, especially as some local authorities have removed the subsidy altogether.

“Following a decision in 2010, parents were asked to contribute towards this, although taxpayers continued to bear about 60% of the cost. There has been no increase in that contribution until the one approved in February this year, to take effect in September.

“The county council spends about £1,000 per pupil, per year on denominational transport, so parents pay considerably less than the true cost. And those on low income who are entitled to free transport will continue to receive that support.

“We need to close a funding gap of around £300m. by 2017. This means we have had to look at every area of our spending very closely, including school transport, which represents a very large annual use of public money.”