COUNCIL bosses have agreed to reconsider a controversial new policy segregating pupils using school buses on the basis of their religious faith.
The News Post Leader revealed last month how rules introduced by Northumberland County Council this term ban youngsters of different religions from mixing on school buses.
Parents of students at Bedlington’s St Benet Biscop Catholic High School have launched a petition protesting against the decision – branded a form of religious apartheid – to run separate buses for Catholic and non-Catholic youngsters.
Council bosses have now bowed to that pressure and agreed to talks about rethinking their decision and possibly reversing it before the year is out.
Simon Reed, the authority’s executive member for infrastructure and environment, has promised that a meeting will be held at the Ridge Terrace school in the near future to address transport arrangements and traffic issues raised by parents.
Coun Reed, of Bothal in Ashington, said: “We recognise the concerns expressed by some parents which are an unintended consequence of a routine review of school transport arrangements.
“We will be talking to St Benet Biscop Catholic High School to explore the possibility of working together on alternative transport arrangements for both eligible and non-eligible children, to begin in January.
“Any revised arrangements must comply with council policy on circumstances whereby children can qualify for free transport, which is normally based on distance from school, but also includes faith or low income.”
The current council policy is to provide free transport to Roman Catholic children attending the 913-place school, but only if they live more than three miles away from it.
No non-Catholics are provided with free transport, irrespective of how far away they live.
Headteacher Con Todd last week told the News Post Leader that he had pleaded in vain with the council not to go ahead with the plans, so he is delighted by its potential change of heart.
He said: “We would welcome the opportunity to reopen discussions with the council regarding the home-to-school transport arrangements with a view to resolving the current issues.”
The school’s vice-chairman of governors, county councillor Wayne Daley, whose son Niran attends the school, said: “I am pleased that the county council appears to be coming to its senses over this bus issue.
“Since this was first raised and the News Post Leader led with the story, people have been horrified at pupils being split up on the basis of their religion and forced to take separate transport into school.
“This is a school where they share the same uniform, same lessons and same friends but are divided on their way to and from school by the council and its policy of bus segregation.
“I hope this matter can be resolved quickly and our children can get back on the same buses.”
Previously, children at the school had been able to share buses with their peers, but new regulations brought into force this term mean that separate buses are now run for pupils of different faiths.
The three buses are believed to be costing the council more than £90,000 a year minus the income generated by fares paid by non-Catholic students using them.