Uckfield area parents who choose to send their children to a church school, rather than their local school, have won a partial victory over transport funding.
East Sussex County Council had threatened to withdraw funding for the transport of children to faith schools from January next year. A compromise was agreed at a meeting on Monday.
A council spokesman said: “Councillors agreed to make the home to school transport policy fairer to all parents by stopping the discretionary support the council provides only to church school parents.
“However, following consultation with parents, schools and the church dioceses the council has agreed to compromise on its proposals and delay the changes for existing pupils so they won’t come into effect until September 2011.
“Also pupils who will go into Year 11 in September 2011 will continue to receive transport support until the end of that academic year to avoid any potential disruption to their education.”
In the short term the council has also agreed to continue subsidised support for those pupils being transported to St Paul’s Catholic College because there is no reasonable public transport alternative.
However, this support will be reviewed over the next year to find alternative arrangements that do not incur a continuing cost to the county council.
Many children from Uckfield and surrounding villages attend St Paul’s in Burgess Hill.
The council spokesman said: “The council is having to examine discretionary elements of the home to school transport budget because of a cut this year in the grant from Government that supports the funding. Delaying the end of subsidised transport means the council will have to look for savings elsewhere in its budget for the savings. This will mean other services will be affected.”
Currently East Sussex County Council chooses to provide transport support to pupils who choose to go to a church or denominational school rather than their local school. But no support is given to parents who opt out of their local school for other reasons.
The changes to church school transport will not affect the statutory free transport provided for pupils who live more than a certain distance away (two miles for primary, three miles for secondary) from their local designated school.
And free transport for families on low incomes is also not affected.
Cllr Keith Glazier, the council’s Lead Member for Children’s and Adults’ Services said the compromise decision came at a cost:
“With the budget constraints we are facing we have had no choice but to examine this discretionary part of the budget. We also need to be very clear that the compromises we are now proposing come at a real cost and the money we won’t now save this year, we will have to find from somewhere else.”
He added the council had listened to concerns raised about the time parents would need to implement the change and the potential affect it could have on some pupils’ schooling if they were introduced midway through the school year.
“We have established a good dialogue with the two church dioceses. We know they understand the budget pressures we are under and we will now look to work with them to find alternative arrangements,” Cllr Glazier said.
In spite of the compromises on the policy changes he insisted the decision to stop the discretionary support in the future was still the right one as it will make the overall home to school transport policy fairer.
He said: “We are not discriminating against church schools. While this policy change is primarily about saving money, it will also make the policy fairer to all. We do not provide funding support for parents who choose not to send their child to a local school for any other reason – they have to pay the full transport costs. Only church school parents currently benefit from our support in this way.”