magine that you are an employee at your local council offices.
You are presented with the council’s annual budget, given a red pen and told to make some savings. Chances are that your pen will move straight to the section marked “discretionary spending”, which lists items that the council is not required to provide by law. One of those items might be “free transport to faith schools”, possibly accompanied by a pound sign and a sixfigure number. You then notice a briefing paper sticking out of your in-tray written by a secularist lobby group. The document explains that such subsidies give religious people an unwarranted “privilege” at the expense of the non-religious. If councils wish to treat all pupils equally, regardless of belief, then the subsidy must go. You grab a ruler and draw a neat red line through the item.
This scenario (or something like it) is being played out at councils across England. But, as we report on our front page this week, some dioceses are offering strong resistance. Many Catholics would, rightly, be uncomfortable if the Church were in fact simply defending an entrenched privilege to the detriment of non-Catholics. Let’s consider if this is the case.
If a council cuts transport subsidies to Catholic schools does this mean that it is now treating all pupils equally, regardless of religion? Only in the superficial sense that it will not be providing free transport to any pupils (except those with parents on low incomes, for example, where there is a statutory duty to offer transport). But pupils are not in an equal position to begin with because Catholic schools typically serve a far wider area than community schools. Catholic pupils are therefore more likely to live some distance from their schools than their non-Catholic peers and have more need of transport. So cutting the subsidy does not eliminate inequality in any meaningful sense.
Catholic parents, moreover, are arguably already paying more than their fair share of their children’s education. In addition to supporting the local education budget through their taxes, they pay 10 per cent of the building and repair costs at their local Catholic school. The Diocese of Shrewsbury Education Service has argued that cuts therefore leave Catholic parents in the position of “being denied any transport support to their nearest school yet subsidising transport to non-Catholic schools”. For this reason the cuts have been described as a “Catholic tax”.
The Catholic Education Service of England and Wales said in June that it was seeking expert legal opinion on whether such cuts are in line with human rights and anti-discrimination laws. The case for maintaining these subsidies is strong. It does not rest, as critics claim, on special pleading, but on the conviction that as many parents as possible should be able to send their children to schools animated by the Catholic faith.