A local authority is threatening to withdraw free transport for schoolchildren, reports Mark Greaves. But the Catholic Church is determined to stop the plan
CARDINAL CORMAC MurphyO'Connor has pledged his support to a campaign which aims to stop Hertfordshire County Council from abolishing free bus services to Catholic schools.
The Cardinal has urged
every Catholic in Hertfordshire to act against a proposal to cut the funding of transport to faith schools, but not to secular state schools.
He insisted in a letter addressed to Catholic parents that the council's plan would imperil the existence of Catholic schools because families would be unable to afford the costs of getting their children to school.
The campaign, led by Catholic CIIr Frank Ward. brings together MPs, councillors, and prominent figures from every major religion to ' stop a proposal that discriminates specifically against denominational schools.
Hertfordshire County Council has begun an official public consultation period to determine whether the move has popular support.
But, according to Clir Ward , the process is a "democratic sham", since many councillors have already made their decision. In his letter Cardinal MurphyO'Connor wrote: "In addition to depriving thousands of Catholic children the possibility of a Catholic education, this policy change will put the long-term existence of some of our schools in doubt."
He added: "I am therefore seeking the help of every Catholic, parent or not, on this crucial matter. Ultimately we must defend the existence of our Catholic schools,"
CI's Ward argued there was a danger that similar measures would be adopted in councils across the country. He said: "I am determined that our campaign will go beyond the borders of' Hertfordshire. We must stop this iniquitous proposal being made anywhere else."
The campaign has the backing of leading figures from the Anglican. Jewish, Hindu and Muslim coirrimunines as well as Cardinal
M urphy -0 'Connor and retired Auxiliary Bishop James O'Brien of Westminster.
Michael Kelly, the headmaster of John Henry New man School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, is also involved in the campaign. He argues that if the proposal is introduced the network of Catholic and sec ular schools in Hertfordshire will be dramatically reshaped. He said: "The county council recognises that it will lead to some school closures. They recognise that it will lead to a significant redistribution of schools in the area. In fact it may be that the move will make our school unable to continue as a Catholic education provider.
"I think this is a real challenge of whether we value Catholic education provision or not," he added.
According to Clir Ward, a growing number of councils are withdrawing transport funding for faith schools. Although most councils in Britain offer a free bus service, 12 councils provide subsidies, and five councils do not offer any funding to faith schools at all.
Alan Whelan, headtesacher at St Benedict's College in Colchester, Essex, where the free bus service to Catholic schools was abolished in 2003, said that less affluent Catholic families struggled to afford the extra cost.
"There has been a definite effect, and it has of course hit the poorer families most. We have sought out support from parishes and Catholic charities for the families who really need it," he explained.
"It grows and grows: as one local authority sees it can get away with attacking Catholic schools, then the others begin to follow, and the whole thing mushrooms," he said.
The Catholic Church provides Hertfordshire with 38 primary schools and nine secondary schools, and educates 17,000 pupils.
Cardinal MurphyO'Connor said: "Hertfordshire claims that as a resultof this change in policy, all children will be treated equally. This will not be the case. in reality, it is the Catholic community which will be disadvantaged most by these proposals."
The Cardinal said that the Archdiocese of Westminster would make "the strongest of representations" to Hettfordshise County Council, and encouraged Catholics to send letters to the council and attend the consultation meetings organised over the next few weeks.