When is a faith school not a faith school?

In discussions on school provision in Brentwood it is often forgotten that the town provides secondary school options for the majority of children who live in Ongar. Until a recent conversation, I was unaware of a significant change in Essex County Council (Essex CC) school transport policy that could potentially affect them and others who use Brentwood schools but live outside of the main body of the town.

I was further alerted to this following on-line discussions regarding transport advice for some parents who were considering sending their children to the proposed Becket Keys Church of England School but who lived outside the North Brentwood area that it is apparently supposed to serve. It was reported that it was Essex CC policy that those attending faith schools were no longer able to claim subsidised transport. The inference was that Becket Keys pupils who lived more than 3 miles away from the school would not get any help with their travel costs. The only advice offered by the free school proposers appeared to be “Ask Essex!”

A simple visit to the Essex CC website confirms the recent change in policy and suggest that, on the face of it, what is reported is true.   

Following a consultation undertaken between Feb-Jun 2011, in July 2011 the Essex CC cabinet made an assessment and changed the existing policy:

“They have taken the decision to withdraw transport support to those pupils living in Essex attending faith primary and secondary schools from September 2012, whilst retaining it for low income families.”

The full policy is available here:

http://www.essex.gov.uk/Education-Schools/Schools/Travel-School/Pages/Travel%20to%20School.aspx

Whatever my views on the possible establishment of the free school, this struck me as potentially discriminatory, particularly for those from Ongar for whom this could be their nearest secondary school. I also thought that parents contacting the Becket Keys facebook page deserved better advice than that provided. To that end I contacted Essex CC last week:

“I wonder if you could clarify a couple of points that seem unclear from the Schools Transport section of the Essex CC website?
 
Will subsidised travel be available for parents from Ongar, who are not low income families, who wish to send their children to Becket Keys Church of England School?
 
For the purposes of the school transport policy schools are identified as “faith schools” or “maintained schools”, under which category do Academies come – e.g. Shenfield High School, St Martins?
 
Many thanks in advance for your help.”

I am grateful to Lucy Dickinson at Essex CC who responded on Friday with clarification but also some surprising news:

“Across the County, where a child is attending a school closer to their home address than their designated school and they reside beyond 3 miles from that school transport will be provided.  For those children living in Ongar, if their chosen school, i.e. Beckett Keys, is closer than their designated school then transport will be provided.

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 we would consider this as a mainstream secondary school for the purposes of our transport policy.”

So, to the probable surprise of its proposers, Becket Keys is not considered to be a faith school for transport purposes. Effectively, because the proposed Church school would be a new school and not an existing voluntary aided school converting to an Academy, it does not meet the faith school criteria.

We explained the various types of school in an earlier blog, “The Church’s role in Brentwood’s schools defined” (http://wp.me/p2dr6s-6s) This policy means that the only secondary school in Brentwood that is considered a faith school is Ursuline Convent School.

I am very interested to know why this policy was amended to exclude faith schools particularly, it suggests there was concern about the amount of people travelling long distances to attend them when there were closer mainstream options, and I will follow this up.

For now, the statement from Essex CC does reiterate that the primary factor is location and that low income families are unaffected. Our advice would be to double check with the county council, but if you live three miles away from the free school to the north of Brentwood, and in the part of Ongar nearest to the town, your children will be eligible for transport subsidy in the same way as you would for Shenfield High School or Brentwood County High School. Those living elsewhere are very unlikely to qualify.

We hope this makes things clearer!

Stephen Mayo

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