Gazette Article 14: “When is a faith school not a faith school?…And when is it one?”

 Published in the Brentwood Gazette – 23rd October 2013

Last week’s coverage in this paper of Essex County Council (ECC) plans to amend their school transport policy highlighted the complete contradiction between national and local education policy.

This current government tells us that the provision of “parental choice” is a key element of their strategy. If so, they should intervene to stop ECC proposals from being enacted.

Essex CCTo remind you, Essex are proposing to cease funding school journeys based on catchment and, instead, will only pay for journeys to a child’s nearest school.

Therefore, if you live in one of Brentwood’s villages, or in Ongar, you will have to pay up to £60 per month if you wish to choose a school for your child that is not the closest one to you.

As Willingale resident Jeff Banks neatly summarised in last week’s Gazette, the policy “takes choice away from the less well off in our society – it says “you can choose your school, if you have the money”.”

However, there is more to this story than first meets the eye.

Last year Essex decided to stop funding transport to faith schools if there were two closer state funded schools to your home. This was primarily a cost cutting measure but also reflected a concern that the council were funding some in the county who were travelling large distances to attend a school purely on religious grounds.

I have been contacted by Ongar parents who are very confused about how this policy relates to Becket Keys free school as, for some, this is now their nearest secondary option. It has come as a surprise to many that Essex do not consider the “Church of England School” to be a faith school.

When I contacted them on this point last year I was told that, “academies fall into the same category as mainstream schools unless they are a Voluntary Aided school that becomes an academy in which case they will be classed as a faith school. In the case of Beckett Keys (sic) we would consider this as a mainstream secondary school for the purposes of our transport policy.”

Apparently this is still the case.

I am certain that Becket Keys consider themselves to be a faith school. Their website makes no bones about it and they hold daily collective worship and prayer. Wasn’t that supposed to be the whole point of them existing?

So are Essex really expecting parents who do not wish their children to attend a faith school to pay to avoid it?

I have contacted the usually very helpful ECC press office to clarify matters. I have asked whether a parent for whom Becket Keys is the nearest school would be able to get free transport to another state funded school in Brentwood if they wished not to send their child there on religious grounds – if they followed another religion of were an atheist for example.

I suggest that it would be only fair to treat this as an exceptional circumstance at the very least. I would also cite this as further evidence that the proposed policy is flawed and current arrangements be maintained until a suitable compromise is negotiated with those who have most to lose – affected parents.

At the time of writing I have not had an official response but will be ensuring that this view is represented in the consultation exercise that Essex are carrying out until October 25th. I encourage anyone with concerns to do the same.

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