Why A Local Faith Tax Is Targetting Catholic Parents and Their Children.
There are a variety of ways in which opponents of church schools can seek to undermine them. Usually it is done by sleight of hand, small, seemingly innocuous restrictions, which seek to asphyxiate rather than throttle, to undermine rather than to close. Occasionally, real intentions emerge through a more honest, straightforward, outright declaration of hostility: a former Lib Dem Education Spokesman truthfully made clear his position when he said “in an ideal world there would be no more religious schools” In England that “ideal world” would mean the end of around 2,000 Catholic schools – about 1,700 primary and 360 secondary. Between them they educate over 700,000 children. 35,000 teachers work in those schools. Such is their popularity that many have long waiting lists.
When a church school fails it’s a shock because parents have great confidence in them, value their ethos, and would not go on sending their children if they thought they were not good or safe places for their children to be.
In areas where there are no Catholic schools, such as the London Borough of Richmond, there are high profile public campaigns to make provision. In other areas where there is a growing Catholic population, similar requests are made. By and large, every conceivable obstacle will be used to thwart them. But, rarely, will their opponents state that they are against church schools in principle. Bogus arguments are frequently deployed.
Opponents of church schools frequently say that such schools are divisive or fail to promote community cohesion (a provision for which I campaigned in 2007). It simply isn’t true. The evidence shows that they actually do better than the non-faith schools.
Professor David Jenson from the University of York conducted a study of Ofsted inspections and concluded that:
“It is very clear that faith schools stand out as providing many exemplars of good practice as indentified by inspection evidence collected over the past six months. This provides a useful corrective to some misguided assumptions about the roles that Faith schools play within their communities. Those who wish to maintain the fiction that has characterised much media comment in this area would do well to look at this evidence produced by the independent inspection regime which entirely discredits those opinions.”
Over a four year period Ofsted said that 41% of Catholic secondary schools in England made an outstanding contribution to their communities, compared to 24% of all schools.
Other calumnies directed at church schools ignorantly suggest that schools of a religious character are not diverse, that they expel any difficult children, and that they only have affluent children on their roll. Once again, the facts tell a different story.
Catholic schools exclude fewer pupils than their maintained sector neighbours: 0.09%, compared with 0.11%; 27% of pupils at Catholic secondary schools are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 22.5% in other schools; Catholic schools have about the same number of pupils in care as other schools (0.36% is the national average); and when it comes to the number of students eligible for free school meals the number is almost identical to the 7% national average: 6% of Catholic schools have more than 35% of pupils eligible for free school meals.
However, one big difference between a local State school and the Catholic school is that the latter is bound to draw from a wider area. Schools with a religious character were created in places where there was a local need for them – usually based in an urban centre but drawing from a much wider catchment. This creates a greater reliance on the provision of school transport – and it is here that the latest battle to undermine church schools is being waged. And it’s leading to the imposition of what amounts to a local Faith Tax.
What is the legal position?
The 1944 Education Act enshrined the right of children at church schools to have assistance with travel costs. The 1996 Education Act places a duty on local authorities to ensure suitable travel arrangements are made to facilitate a child’s attendance at school. It places a duty on local authorities to make home to school transport arrangements in relation to “eligible children”.
The 2006 Education and Inspections Act extended the offer of free school transport by adding a duty to provide free transport for some of the most disadvantaged pupils to attend a secondary school selected on the grounds of religion or belief where that school is more than 2 and less than 15 miles from their home and there is no nearer suitable school.
But, increasingly school transport is being denied.
Increasing numbers of local authorities have removed or reduced their support for school transport – knowing that the hardest hit would be the church schools. The Catholic Education Service give the example of a school in Essex, in Chelmsford, where the local authority has removed all subsidies, and the cost of school transport will be between £746 and £1379 per year (depending on where the child lives). Up and down the country similar reports have been emerging, from Rochdale to the Isle of Wight.
Earlier this year, CES became so concerned about the way in which “hidden agenda” local authorities have been withdrawing support for transport that they sought legal advice about a possible human rights-based legal challenge in the courts. Maeve McCormack of the CES has also been assembling a toolkit which will be made available to schools to use in their own localities. As she says: “For poorer families, particularly, remove the school bus or charge exorbitant fares and it will simply place the church school out of reach.”
CES say that those most in need will be hit the hardest. Hardworking low income families will be crippled financially, totally unable to find the several hundred – or even thousands – of pounds which daily journeys spread over several years will entail. It will also adversely affect larger families.
They also say that it is unfair religious discrimination, disproportionately affecting Catholic children; that it is in breach of the spirit and, at times, the letter of the statutory provisions; that it is unfair to parents who budgeted for wholly unanticipated costs; that if children have to be withdrawn from one school and placed in another inevitably it will adversely disrupt their education.
The Government have fallen back on the shrug your shoulders formula that “the Secretary of State hopes that local authorities will continue to think it right not to disturb well established arrangements, some of which have been associated with local agreements or understandings about the siting of such schools.”
The Government needs to do more than hope. It needs to be much clearer in insisting that local authorities honour their duties and do not discriminate against children from faith backgrounds – and that this is not used as yet another attempt to undermine or asphyxiate Catholic schools.