Welsh churches unite over faith school transport threat

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Media captionCouncils must provide free transport if secondary school pupils live three or more miles away

Anglican and Catholic churches in Wales say faith schools should receive the same level of financial protection as Welsh-medium schools.

It follows concerns over plans to withdraw free buses to faith schools by some local authorities.

Councils must provide free transport if secondary school pupils live three or more miles away.

But transport to a faith school is discretionary if a mainstream school is closer.

However, Welsh language schools have greater legal protection when it comes to free transport.

"I acknowledge that local authorities have to contend with quite drastic cutbacks to their budgets but to remove free transport for faith schools is a short-sighted decision," said senior Catholic priest, Monsignor Bob Reardon, of the Archdiocese of Cardiff.

"I can see it's pragmatic but the viability and sustainability of faith schools will be affected.

"Transport is essential to the sustaining of education in those schools."

He said parents from more disadvantaged backgrounds could be deprived of a choice in how their children are educated.

"If the costs are prohibitive to families sending their children to faith schools then they will have to opt for the nearest local authority schools," he added.

Under threat

There are about 250 faith schools across Wales, with those most affected by council cutbacks likely to be Catholic secondaries, because of the proportion of pupils that travel by bus.

Image caption Councils facing cuts are considering axing free transport to faith schools for some pupils

So far one council, Neath Port Talbot, has already decided to withdraw free transport for secondary school pupils who go to a faith school.

Two others, Bridgend and Conwy, are also considering the measure.

A public consultation is due to begin in Bridgend next month about proposals that could save the authority more than £500,000 a year.

In Flintshire, the council has also decided to withdraw the funding unless pupils can prove their beliefs with a baptism certificate.

Wrexham council has already withdrawn funding for free transport for all schools that are not the closest to where they live.

"What the churches want is parity with provision for Welsh-medium schools," argued Monsignor Reardon.

"They have to make enormous cuts, not of their choice, but I would urge councils not to be short-sighted in the decisions they make now because if they do remove free transport to faith schools, if they affect the viability of those schools in the future, the diversity of education provision will no longer exist."

The proposals will also affect Church in Wales schools.

Edwin Counsell, an education adviser to the Church in Wales, which has 162 schools, has described the cutbacks as "disrespectful".

Financial pressure

A spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association, which represents councils across Wales, said: "Local government in Wales has entered the most difficult economic climate in its history, and every council will have to balance its reduced financial resources against a rising demand for public services.

"Local councils are doing everything possible to protect existing services but many non-statutory service areas, like the provision of out-of-catchment school transport services for faith schools, will be placed under severe financial pressure in the future.

"When considering changes to local school transport provision, councils have a clear legislative duty to actively promote access to education and training through the medium of the Welsh language, but no such statutory duty is in place for local transport arrangements for learners attending faith schools."

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