Time for faith schools debate

THERE is a growing cross-border cross-party consensus in Essex and Suffolk over charging parents transport fees for sending their children to denominational schools but who live outside the catchment area.

THERE is a growing cross-border cross-party consensus in Essex and Suffolk over charging parents transport fees for sending their children to denominational schools but who live outside the catchment area.

When Conservative controlled Essex proposed the charges, Labour reacted as if laws repressing Catholic worship were about to be re-enacted. Labour members of the county council called the Tories all sorts of names and asked Education Secretary Charles Clarke to intervene and even Colchester's Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell joined the fray.

Now Labour and Liberal Democrat county councillors in Suffolk are preparing to follow suit – and of course the opposition Conservatives are up in arms and lending their support to parents who are angry at the move.

Suffolk will save £195,000 by bringing in the bus charges, part of the county council's 2% efficiency savings to stop council tax increasing way above the rate of inflation.


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The moral dilemma in both counties, and in the rest of the nation, is this – should Catholic children be discriminated against by being charged for school transport or should all council taxpayers subsidise parents who want their offspring to have a different education?

Indeed, has the concept of church (denominational) schools outlived its usefulness? If education was integrated in Northern Ireland, the outlook might be much brighter if Catholic and Protestant children had always attended the same state schools.

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Looked at another way, what would the reaction of council taxpayers be if a segregated fundamentalist school for Moslems was established in Thurrock and the community in north Essex demanded free bus transport to take children 50 miles down the A12 every day? I can just imagine.

Even in our growing secular society, freedom of worship is a fundamental right. But there should now be a proper debate about whether, in the United Kingdom of the 21st century, we should continue to subsidise segregated schooling through general taxation and council taxes.

DURING a week away from my desk and I ventured to Aldeburgh to see the controversial Benjamin Britten scallop on the beach. What's all the fuss about?

Maggie Hambling's splendid piece of architecture blends well with its rather isolated surroundings and should be a source of pride for the residents. Personally, I would move it to near the Moot Hall, so it can be viewed by all visitors to the seaside resort.

And here's another suggestion – if the residents of Southwold don't want their rail link to Halesworth restored, perhaps the promoters should switch their attention to the former Saxmundham-Leiston-Aldeburgh line. That way, more visitors can be taken to Aldeburgh to see the Scallops and boost the town's economy.

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