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Catholics protest over plan to cut free travel

Catholic schools have launched a fierce protest against plans to end free transport for pupils as councils strive to save money.

Heads across Staffordshire are the latest to fight plans to remove subsidised travel, which costs the county more than #163;1 million a year, claiming hundreds of pupils risk being denied a religious education.

Their protests follow similar battles over free transport in other local authorities, including Nottingham, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire.

Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide free transport to school in certain circumstances, but not specifically to faith schools when other non-denominational schools are closer.

Ian Parry, deputy leader of Staffordshire County Council, said: "Although this free transport has been around many years, there is a general acceptance that it is fundamentally unfair.

"While we continue to recognise and support faith schools as providers of good-quality education, we also believe in equity and fairness. With all public spending coming under severe pressure and all services under scrutiny, we feel it is no longer possible to justify this significant cost."

The council is carrying out a consultation on plans to phase out the subsidy, which costs #163;1.1 million a year.

The proposals would affect some 1,500 pupils attending Catholic schools in Staffordshire and neighbouring authorities, including Wolverhampton, Stoke, Walsall and Derbyshire. One Church of England school will also be affected.

About 100 pupils from low-income families will be protected from any changes. Others will be asked to pay about #163;410 per pupil each year.

St Francis of Assisi College in Aldridge, Walsall, is one of the schools where pupils will be affected. More than 260 of its pupils - about a quarter of the total - travel from Staffordshire.

"It's really important that young people and their parents have the right to choose a Catholic education," said headteacher Philomena Mullins. "Christianity is under constant threat in this country.

"There is a real issue here about children being displaced and whether they can even be placed in other schools."

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