BY MARK GREAVES
HERTFORDSHIRE County Council has voted to abolish free transport to faith schools despite the protests of more than 1,000 parents, teachers and children outside the town hall in St Albans.
The measure was approved unanimously by the council’s executive cabinet on Tuesday.
The council heard speeches from Catholic and Anglican bishops last week urging them to reject the proposal, but decided to end free transport to faith schools by 40 votes to 29.
The bishops – Catholic Bishop James O’Brien of Westminster and the Anglican Bishop of Hertford, Christopher Foster – joined a maharaja and a rabbi to lead a prayer service for the protestors.
Councillors on their arrival were met with a crowd of 1,500 protestors, many of whom had arrived on one of the 30 coaches sent by Catholic schools across Hertfordshire. Bishop O’Brien, whose speech drew fierce applause in the council chamber, has called for a nationwide campaign to oppose the proposal.
The bishop said: “This decision has consequences for Catholic schools throughout the country. It demands a vigorous response from all faith communities.” He warned that the move would have a dramatic impact on the network of Hertfordshire’s Catholic schools and would force some schools to close.
He said: “If transport funding for faith schools were to be abandoned our poorer families – the very ones whose need is greatest – will not be able to afford the cost of transport. There is then a real possibility that some faith schools will have to close as fewer pupils would be able to attend them.” The bishop added: “The existing system of subsidised transport to faith schools has worked well for over 70 years. It would be incredi bly short-sighted to endanger it now.” The diocese of Westminster has announced its determination to oppose the decision, and has said it will seek advice on whether the council’s plan is legal.
Paul Barber, the director of education for the diocese, said the plan would stop children from attending the faith school of their choice.
He added: “In Essex, where similar proposals have already been implemented, many of the children, particularly those from poorer families, have been prevented from accessing their schools.” Cllr Frank Ward, who leads the South Herts Faith Defence Movement set up to oppose the proposal, called the vote last Tuesday “a disgrace”.
The councillor warned that other county councils were likely to follow the example of Essex and Hertfordshire and abolish the funding of faith school transport.
He urged the Catholic Church in Britain to pursue a “joined-up strategy” across the country to respond to the crisis and defend the rights of Catholic schools.
While a survey carried out by the council revealed that the overwhelming majority of people in Hertfordshire are opposed to the plan to cut funding.
Out of the 19,000 people who responded to the survey – the largest number of respondents in the council’s history – 16,000 were against the ending of free transport.
The protestors who gathered outside the town hall last Tuesday were led in prayer by Bishop O’Brien and Bishop Foster together with Rabbi Arial Abel and Krishna Das Swami.
The South Herts Faith Defence Movement has already received the backing of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who urged Catholics in Hertfordshire to protest against the council’s proposal.