Page 9, 13th June 2008

13th June 2008
Page 9
Page 9, 13th June 2008 — Don't blame us for 4x4s

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People: Hugh David


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Don't blame us for 4x4s

Hugh David on why Catholic children don't walk to school SCHOOLBOARD

est start off by admitting it. I'm a hypocrite. In many senses, probably. but before this turns into a wide-ranging con fessional, I should make clear what I am thinlcing of here is school transport. I am the one who loudly bemoans those parents in 4x4s who do the school run to avoid their little darlings having to brave the battlefield that is the streets, but who. in the process, are also ruining the planet for their children's future. But then I am also the one who still seems to drive to school most days. Albeit not in a 4x4 — nothing so vulgar and expensive.

In theory, of course, I'm all for walking — healthy body, healthy mind, healthy environment and a chance to multitask by exercising the dog — but in practice it is nigh on impossible to shoehorn my kids out of the front door in time to get them to St Peter's on foot by 850am. Unless I take them in their pyjamas. Which in these health and safety conscious days probably counts as a form of abuse.

Some days, to be fair, we almost make it, but then there is always a lunch box left behind, a carrot that needs peeling to make their midday meal more wholesome, an empty egg box required for the model they are making, or a reading book lost. And so we end up tumbling into the car.

There has been a big official push of late to cajole parents into walking to school with their kids — banners strung up outside the gates exhorting us to leave the car behind and "walk on a Wednesday" et al. But, for parents at Catholic and other religious schools, all this otherwise laudable arm-twisting misses a very important point. Because faith communities are thinly spread, our school catchment areas are larger than those of the local primaries on the next street corner. So the distances from home to gate are longer. and often too long for little legs to complete comfortably before the bell goes.

Special pleading? Probably. Making excuses for my own failure to practise what I preach? Maybe. But those longer distances should not be dismissed as irrelevant. It has long been the habit of local authorities to provide free bus pass

es for children at faith schools in recognition of the greater than average distances they have to travel. Mine was just about my most precious possession five days a week when I was a boy.

Such special travel concessions have long been the subject of controversy with local councils pleading poverty, and cutting back on them, followed by concemed parents raising a petition, fighting the cut and usually getting their passes back. But it is a sign of the times that now it is not just one isolated council tightening the purse strings, but, according to a recent survey, as many as one in six. It would be comforting to think it was all part of a public health campaign to make children in faith schools walk and reduce traffic congestion. But no. This is rooted in the current thinly veiled antipathy to Schools with a religious character.

How, then, to react? Well, I would suggest calmly. One of the immediate drivers of this hitherto little heralded change has been recent revisions in education legislation which place greater burdens on local education authorities to offer free transport to school for children from low-income families. Worthy recipients, and not something we should be seen to be opposing.

But, taking a broader view, it may be that we could successfully take some of the heat out of the current unsettling debate about faith schools by looking again at the financial details of the partnership between state arid church. Currently all running costs of faith schools are covered by the state, along with 85 per cent of capital costs. In return a majority of governors are drawn from the faith community.

It is, by any standards, a good deal. I don't want to belittle how hard it is to raise that 15 per cent. Neither, as a parent governor. do I underestimate how much Government regulation, Ofsted inspections and local authority parsimony impact on the freedoms of the governing body. But I think we should also accept that the current arrangements leave us little to complain about.

So should we consider making concessions to placate those who feel that faith schools are too big a drain on local and national taxpayers? Well, possibly. And transport strikes me as one area where we might conceivably make a start. So instead of fighting what will quickly become a bitter rearguard action over free travel passes, perhaps parishes might club together to help schools to provide an alternative — a mini-bus, say. Using one vehicle would be greener.

Thin end of the wedge? I'm not sure. But an intransigent refusal to reflect on the current deal in the light of a radically changing landscape will. I'm convinced. ultimately do us no favours. We need to show that we can react to new circumstances and prejudices.

Now, must rush. Today we are definitely walking. Please email your comments or any items of interest on faith schools to Hugh David at [email protected]

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