The Government's plan to allow local authorlites to make sweeping cuts in schools' transport subsidies is arousing massive opposition from the Church. John Carey outlines the fears that lie behind the campaign against the Education Bill no■% hefore l'arliament.
The decision last weekend by the Catholic Teacher's Federation to give its wholehearted support to "a plague of lobbies" against the planned cuts in the funding of school transport came as no great surprise.
It was the logical outcome to a campaign which has won the support of Catholics of all political persuasions. With the obvious exception of abortion, no issue in recent times has so effectively united the Catholic Church in opposition to a proposed piece of government ;legislation..
The attacks on the Education Bill in its present form include a formal protest by the Bishops' Conference in November. The bishops berated the Bill for "undermining the trust which they had placed in the dual system."
The most contentious clause as far as the Church is concerned is Clause 23 which frees local authorities from the responsibility to provide free school transport to anyone living more than three miles away from their school. The Bill will also take away the Secretary of State's right to intervene in disputes between parents and local authorities.
Mr Harry Mellon. a former CT! president now co-ordinating the campaign, insists that the Secretary of State must retain his powers of intervention to protect those who feel that they are being discriminated against. For him to "step out of the ring" is to rely on "pious hopes", Mr Mellon claims.
The retention of the Minister's powers is the compromise which opponents of the Bill are hoping to gain if they cannot get the whole clause removed. It may prove to be one on which the Government will be prepared to give way.
The reason is that many Conservatives are highly embarrassed by the weight of opposition to the Bill. It is their party after all which has made great play of its standing as "the party of free choice".
Since coming to power, however, its main concern has been to cut public expenditure. The anticipated savings made it' Clause 23 goes through amount to about E30 million and it would appear that in its eagerness to achieve this the Government failed to anticipate the rage that the cuts would inspire among Catholics, many of whom are traditional Conservative voters.
Its response has been to try to play down the effect that the cuts will have on Church schools. Its spokesmen have stressed that it is not forcing local authorities to abandon transport subsidies altogether.
For example, in a key passage of his speech to the CIT conference in Cardiff, Mr Michael Roberts. under-secretary of state
for Wales said: "The chare-: (imposed by the local Education Authorities) need not be the loll charge: it could be a proportion or a flat rate: it could apply to 011 children or it could exclude certain categories. The permutations are endless and t w effect on schools and parents will vary from one authority. to another."
Critics of the Bill brush aside such statements as being evasie and naive. They point to acti al instances where local authorities. under pressure to make cuts, have chosen the obvious target of transport. One example is t ie Oxfordshire County Council which has already pre-empted the passing of the Bill by voting to stop all funds to pupils travelling to denominational schools.
Another is mid-Glamorgan which this week debated a set of proposals which if accepted would lead to pupils at Cathclie or Welsh language schools be ng charged 80 pence per week more than those at other kinds of school. •
Against this, Birmingham have given an assurance that there will be no change in the present arrangements for subsidies to Catholic parents, at least for he next year.
However, it is precisely these kind of differences, and lie uncertainty that they evoke, t iat make people say that it is ludicrous for the Government to suggest that local authorities can be relied upon to safeguard .he interests of parents whose children attend denominational schools.
Critics of the Bill differ in ll-cir asso,:snient of the danger tha. it
poses. Hard-liners see it as a threat to the whole system of Catholic schools. Others — including Mr Mellott — are less apocalyptic and emphasise that the cuts will only affect some
In particular, of course, the cuts threaten those schools which dray, their pupils from a wide catchment area, Consequently the most 'bitter reaction to the proposals has come from people in areas like Wales and the northeast. Rural communities feel that the Government is now going back unilaterally on guarantees that were given to them at times when many small local schools were being closed.
As Mr Ernie Shields, the retiring CIF president, said at the conference: "Aided and abetted by central governments, local authorities up and down the country have closed hundreds of village schools in recent years. Many believe irreparable harm has been done to the communities concerned both in educational and social terms. In many cases agreement on closures was reached with parents on the assurance that free school transport would be forthcoming.
"The passing of this Bill in ifs present form will mean a betrayal of the trust given to voluntary bodies at the time of the 1944 Act and also to those rural communities who have experienced the closing of their village schools."
One weakness of the campaign so far could be that it has been waged without the express support of the main teachers' onions. However, Mr Mellon explained that this was primarily because he felt that it was important to "establish the credibility" of the campaign before going in search of "outside" support.
He feels that this has now been done and the Government is -worried. Consequently letters. appealing for further backing have been sent out to both the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers.
The Government is believed to he planning to ensure that clauses 19-21 of the Bill will he passed through the committee stage next week and clauses 22-25 the following week. This would mean that the Bill would return to the house of Commons for its report stage curly in February.
Time is therefore short. That is why the (TI' is hciping that the "plague" will spread rapidly.