Nick Herbert opposes cuts in subsidy for church school transport
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert has urged County Council leaders to "think long and hard" before deciding to cut the subsidy for transport to church schools in West Sussex.
West Sussex County Council has proposed changes to the funding arrangements for transport to Catholic and Church of England schools across the county.
The Council currently provides assistance with transport where the child is attending the nearest appropriate church school, lives three or more miles from the school and the journey can be made by existing public transport. The assistance is limited to the cost of travel up to 10 miles.
The Council has said that the cost of the subsidy last year was approximately £860,000 and nearly 1,900 pupils received help - an average of about £450 per pupil - and that cutting this would make the school transport system "fairer".
But Mr Herbert has pointed out that travel distances to denominational schools outside catchment areas were bound to be greater than for local schools, so a comparison between the two was itself unfair.
The cost of the subsidy to denominational schools is around 6 per cent of the £12.5 million spent by West Sussex annually on school transport. The Council's maximum estimate of the savings achievable by cutting the subsidy is £400,000 after five years, which equates to just 3.2 per cent of the total school transport budget.
If the Council's support for uneconomic bus routes which are mostly used by school children is taken into account, the proportion of transport subsidy taken by church schools is even lower.
Mr Herbert raised the issue at a meeting between West Sussex MPs and County Council leaders on 2 March, and has also discussed his concerns with the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People's Services, Councillor Mark Dunn, who is leading the consultation.
The Headteacher of St Philip Howard Catholic School in Barnham, in Nick Herbert's constituency, has warned that, since the large majority of his pupils travel to the school by train, the impact of cutting the subsidy would be to deter less affluent Catholic families from sending their children to the school, a fear echoed by Nick Herbert.
The consultation closed on 7 February and a decision is expected around the end of this month. The Council has said that any changes to church school transport would be introduced from September 2008 and would be phased in for new pupils only. But the MP has urged Council leaders to re-think the proposal.
Mr Herbert said: "I appreciate the efforts of West Sussex County Council to make savings. The Council has to contend with repeatedly poor financial deals from the Government, and it is right to look for efficiencies and avoid excessive rises in council tax.
"However, I think that transport to faith schools is the wrong target. I believe that church schools have a special value in our society, with an ethos which should be cherished and protected. They also tend to have good results.
"If we accept their value, we must also accept that Church schools involve greater travel distances. It's not a question of treating them more favourably - actually it's the reverse, a question of ensuring that church schools and parents aren't discriminated against because of their location.
"I urge the County Council to think long and hard before going any further down this line."