COUNCIL bosses are facing allegations of running a faith-based apartheid system on their school buses by forcing children of different religions to travel separately.
A News Post Leader investigation has revealed that new rules introduced by Northumberland County Council ban youngsters of different religious backgrounds from mixing on the school run.
The move has sparked an outcry among parents as they say it is creating a religious divide between Roman Catholics and non-Catholics.
Previously, children at St Benet Biscop Catholic High School in Bedlington 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.
Sowmya Pulle, whose 15-year-old non-Catholic son Niran attends the Ridge Terrace school, described the decision as laughable.
“I can’t believe in this century that a council can go ahead and support segregation because that is what it is,” she said.
“It’s disgraceful, and I find it unbelievable that this has happened. It’s laughable.
“The council just took the number of Catholic people to tender without a thought for the non-Catholics.
“The whole tendering process has been discriminatory, and the council has failed to meet the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act.
“For a school that teaches Christian principles, this situation smacks of prejudice and is arguably the most insulting and degrading treatment of non-Catholic children.
“I am actually quite appalled at this. We have for many years paid for two children to attend voluntarily a good school.
“We made that choice on the principles and ethos we believed the Catholic system would offer our children, and now they want to separate non-Catholic children from even travelling with their friends? This is modern Britain, or so I thought.
The school’s vice-chairman of governors, Wayne Daley, also county councillor for Cramlington North, added: “The council decided that they were going to have this policy of segregation.
“The Catholics get free transport to school, but the council won’t allow the fee-paying kids to go on the same bus.
“Now we have a situation where the Catholics are getting on one bus for free that’s not full and the non-Catholics are waiting to get on a separate bus.
“It is segregation on the basis of religion and I think, in this day and age, it is appalling.
“It has been banned in South Africa and America, but for some reason Northumberland County Council thinks it is a good idea.
“If this had been done on the basis of Muslim, Jew or Hindu, it would have involved the Equalities Commission coming in.
“I think this is wrong, and fundamentally I think it is segregation to split kids because of religion.
“I’m shocked that in 2012, Northumberland County Council has created an apartheid system.”
Catholic June Finn, of Southfield Lea, whose 14-year-old son Robert also uses the bus service, said she was concerned about the effects the separation will have on the children affected.
“I think it is ridiculous that they are being separated in the way they are,” she said.
“You have fare-paying and non-fare-paying children going to the same place, but they are being told they can’t travel there together because the council is segregating them according to their religious beliefs.
“I don’t know how many people realise what is going on or the implications that this segregation could have. This could cause all sorts of problems.
“Robert is just going into Year 10, and it is a worry the disruption this could cause as he starts working towards his GCSEs.
“The school has had to try and get this sorted so the non-Catholic children can get to school. Otherwise they would have had to look at changing schools when other places are already at capacity.
“If it wasn’t for the school having funding, that might have been a reality.
“The school is having to pay for the buses that the council previously provided so they don’t lose these children.
“This has never happened before. I have an 18-year-old daughter who has gone the whole way through school without any problem.”
A county council spokesman said: “Entitlement to free transport to this school is based on children living beyond the statutory walking distance of three miles and being of the Roman Catholic faith, in line with the council’s transport policy.
“We have undertaken a re-tendering of all home-to-school transport that serves schools based in the south east of the county, which includes St Benet Biscop Catholic High School.
“Up to the end of the last academic year, the school buses that were paid for by the council were larger than required and, as such, there were plenty of spare seats for non-entitled fare-paying children to travel on. Unfortunately, in the interests of making cost savings, these arrangements have had to end.
“The council has no duty to provide additional capacity on its contracted school transport vehicles to carry non-entitled fare-paying children as well.
“The council makes transport arrangements for all those children who qualify for free transport only.
“It is not the council’s responsibility to make or maintain any arrangements for non-entitled children attending Northumberland schools. This is in line with statutory and council policy.
“It is not commonplace for non-entitled fare-paying and entitled non-fare-paying children to travel together on school transport. Usually they travel separately.
“It is misleading to describe the arrangements as segregation.
“There is a distinction between those entitled to free transport and those not entitled to free transport which include non-Catholics and also Catholics who live within three miles of the school.”