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Catholics fight WC transport cut / Small concession granted

September 13, 2011 8:52 AM
By Trevor Carbin

Wiltshire Council announced earlier this year its intention to withdraw special transport subsidies for children attending faith schools, almost all of whom belong to Roman Catholic families.

However a campaign against the sudden change resulted in the decision being reviewed and an opportunity being given for affected schools and parents to respond.

The WC cabinet eventually conceded that children in a faith school will continue to get help with transport until they leave their current school, but there will be no help for new pupils.

This represents a managed retreat on the part of the cabinet. Their first compromise was to suggest retaining the subsidy only for those in their GCSE year.

At the September 13th cabinet meeting speakers including parents, teachers and governors urged a rethink. They pointed out that scrapping the subsidy out of hand could be seen as discriminatory, and that the contribution of faith schools to the wider community should be recognised. Speakers also suggested that if children were forced to move to other schools then the budgetary savings could be lost.

The suggestion that schools should then arrange the transport themselves was also questioned. The Head Teacher of St Joseph's School pointed out that he didn't have the resources to do this: "I'm an educationalist, not a bus company," he said.

For the cabinet report see http://cms.wiltshire.gov.uk/ieAgenda.aspx?A=5650 The representations are in the Agenda Supplement.

Here's a press release from WC Lib Dem group:

At Tuesday's meeting of the Wiltshire Council Cabinet the Conservative authority performed another spectacular u-turn and abandoned their plans to withdraw all funding from denominational transport next year (save a rump funding for students about to take their GCSEs) and instead adopted the policy recommended by the Lib Dems for the past 6 months and promised to continue funding for all children for the duration of their education at their current school.

The changes mean that no children who are currently attending a faith school with be forced to move as a result of the withdrawal of the funding for denominational transport.

Leader of the Lib Dems on Wiltshire Council, Jon Hubbard, commented after the meeting, "I'm really pleased that today the council has listened to the comments that I and a large number of the community have been making. You just can't turn this funding off overnight.

"I personally have always been clear that I do not support spending taxpayers money providing additional busses to transport children to schools outside of their local communities, but any changes have to be made in a way that does not impact on the children's education.

"What is a shame is that the cabinet chose to ignore the advice of the council's own scrutiny committee on this issue and will be making schools organise their own transport rather than providing it through the Public Transport Unit.

"I fail to understand the logic of this decision. The council will now be forcing teachers out of the classroom and onto the phones trying to book buses for children, whist in County Hall we have a specialist public transport procurement team whose workload will fractionally reduce.

"All the time in council meetings we are told how important it is that we have a new central procurement department in the council, yet the Cabinet's decision today advocates doing exactly the opposite and forcing teachers who should be spending time with children to instead be bogged down with yet more paperwork."

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The Chairman of Governors of St Augustine's School in Trowbridge presented a petition to the Wiltshire Council meeting on July 12th objecting to the withdrawal of the 'denominational transport' subsidy which funds pupils travelling to religious schools.

WC hopes to save £170,000 per year by axing the subsidy. Currently most parents whose children travel to religious schools share the costs of transport with the council.

WC says it can no longer afford to provide this help and parents of children attending such schools must pay their own costs.

The subsidies are due to be axed from September next year.

The biggest impact will be on St Augustine's, where currently 302 pupils - including 150 who are bussed over from Devizes - get the subsidy.

Children from low income families could however still get subsidised transport to travel to religious schools.

Chairman of Governors Michael Stevenson is objecting not just to the principle of the change but also to the way it was imposed by the council without consulting the people directly affected. "We are asking that Catholic communities across Wiltshire should have an open and fair consultation on this important matter; it is unacceptable to simply inform those affected when changing a key policy," he says in the preamble to the petition.

Mr Stevenson also accused the cabinet of trying to sneak the change through by making the decision in the summer holidays when parents and teachers would find it more difficult to get to the meeting to put their case.

An attempt at Full Council to change the date of the cabinet meeting to make it easier for people to attend and put their case was defeated by the administration's block vote. (Result was 31 for, 47 against, 3 abstentions).

However having marched the Tory troops to the top of the hill to defend her position, council leader Jane Scott subsequently surrendered and agreed to delay the decision until the cabinet meeting on September 13th.

Here's a press release from the county group:

Another U-turn by Wiltshire's Conservatives
Following a petition by parents, and pressure from the Liberal Democrats in the debating chamber, Wiltshire's Conservatives have slammed the brakes on their programme of cuts for buses going to Denominational Schools, .

Jon Hubbard, Lib Dem group leader said: "We welcome this decision by Wiltshire Conservatives to heed our advice and pause this cut. The Cabinet now need to think about the impact that a hastily made, ill-considered decision could have had on the education of young people.

"I hope the Conservatives have listened to everything we've said, and as well as taking our advice to take more time to consider these major cuts, they will hold this meeting at a time and place accessible to the parents teachers and pupils affected."

Jon continued: "I note with interest that the Conservative leader has felt it necessary to correct what she said at council. I wonder how many other decisions have been rushed through by Wiltshire's ruling Conservatives without a full understanding of the facts."

Peter Colmer, Deputy Lib Dem Group Leader said "This keeps happening. In the council chamber the Conservatives fight tooth and nail to defend their obviously flawed policies, and then abruptly U-turn as soon as they're out of the debate. I'd like more of a willingness to for the administration to listen to constructive criticism, from the Lib Dems and the public, accept their mistakes earlier on, and in doing so waste less Council time and taxpayer money."

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Update July 19th:

Wiltshire Council has announced that it will backtrack to a small extent when the decision is made in September. An option which would continue to fund those children going into year 11, ie about to do GCSEs, is being recommended. This would cost £21,000 for one year only, with the council's original savings of about £160,000 per year being realised thereafter. This would be done through a payment of £409 per pupil to the school, which would then have to arrange the transport.

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Update July 25th:

Parents are asking for a further delay to the cabinet meeting, and for it to be held at a suitable venue at a time when those affected can attend.

Father Jean-Patrice Coulon said: "When school transport subsidy was proposed to be withdrawn in 2007, an evening meeting was held in the Sports Hall at St. Augustine's Catholic College which attracted over 500 people. Will Cabinet agree to take up the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition Cllr Jon Hubbard to have a single issue evening Cabinet meeting? This would ideally be held centrally in Trowbridge, for which the premises of St. Augustine's would be happily donated to the Council. In the interests of local, open honest discussion, the Cabinet should explain to parents directly why they wish to make this proposal which will jeopardise children's education and reduce parental choice for the sake of less than £170,000 in a budget of close to a billion pounds. In doing so, the Cabinet would successfully refute the suggestion that Mr Michael Stevenson, the Chair of Governors of St. Augustine's put at the Full Council meeting of a "Council afraid to face up to its responsibilities".

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Update July 26th.

At this morning's cabinet meeting representatives of the schools again asked for the meeting to be held at a suitable time and venue. However the responsible cabinet member Dick Tonge refused the request, saying the September meeting would be held as scheduled in Bradley Road at 10.30am on the 13th. Ann Ferries, chair of governors of St Patrick's, Corsham, stated that: "Parents have not been consulted in any meaningful way. The council is assuming that parents will pay up, but should large numbers move school that would erode the savings. This is not a democratic way for a council to behave, as if children do not matter."