Local authorities spend almost #163;60 million a year on transport for children attending faith schools, despite growing pressure on their budgets, new survey findings suggest.
Lancashire County Council was the biggest spender, racking up a bill of almost #163;4 million, according to figures collected by the National Secular Society (NSS). Seven more authorities were found to have spent more than #163;1 million each.
A number of councils have recently chosen to cut the subsidy, but the NSS is now calling on the Government to outlaw the practice, arguing that it is discriminatory.
At present, councils are only required to provide free school transport for children from low-income families. It is up to them to decide how much money they contribute towards transport for children attending faith schools.
But in a letter to education secretary Michael Gove, the NSS said it was concerned that forthcoming education legislation would be used to increase the statutory obligations of councils. "We ask that you table an amendment to make religious discrimination in travel unlawful," the letter says.
The NSS said it had received complaints of pupils being charged for transport to a faith school, while neighbouring children using the same bus travelled for free on the basis of their parents' religion.
"Particularly given that the costs are borne out of public funds, such discrimination is completely unacceptable," the letter adds.
NSS figures show that approximately 90 of the 152 local authorities surveyed had together spent #163;35 million on subsidising faith school transport in 200809.
Faith school supporters have fought local campaigns to protect the transport subsidies, which have been axed by growing numbers of councils. Heads in Staffordshire, Nottingham and Oxfordshire have all recently campaigned - and failed - to keep subsidised travel.
Oona Stannard, director of the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, said: "The European Convention on Human Rights says children should be educated in line with their parents' wishes. To undermine that when it comes to faith schools feels like a form of discrimination to me."
Lancashire County Council is now planning significant cutbacks on free faith school transport. Susie Charles, cabinet member for children and schools, said: "Asking parents to contribute to the cost of travel to a faith school, which is not their nearest school, will enable us to save a significant amount of money, while still subsidising the service by more than half."
COST OF FAITH
Council spending on home-to-faith school transport (millions)
North Yorkshire: #163;1.4
Cheshire East: #163;1.1.