“DON’T make me repeat an apartheid era.”
These are the words of an Ashington mother who escaped apartheid in South Africa, and says she is now fighting to stop the same thing happening in Northumberland.
Yesterday the News Post Leader exclusively revealed how new rules introduced by Northumberland County Council ban youngsters of different religious backgrounds from mixing on school buses.
The move has sparked an outcry among parents who say the move is creating a religious split between Roman Catholics and non-Catholics at Bedlington’s St Benet Biscop Catholic High School – and now Cherie Nelson, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, and now of North Seaton, Ashington, is planning on taking the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in a bid to overturn the decision.
The 42-year-old, whose 14-year-old daughter Zoe attends the school, said: “When I saw the article in the News Post Leader I was in an absolute rage, and I saw my country’s name and it brought back so many memories.
“It is unfair, it is discrimination. I am re-living what I have already been through.
“This time it isn’t about the colour of my skin, it is with my religion, but it might as well be the same thing.
“It is like I can’t get rid of discrimination in my life.
“To come to this country thinking I am coming to a better country, to get away from the prejudice they might face and to then get this? I am reliving what I have done in my past, I am fuming that I have to yet again fight and get the decision overturned.”
Previously, children at the Ridge Terrace 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.
“On the buses and trains it used to be whites only and non-whites, so this really has brought back so much,” she added.
“It is wrong in every sense – how can the council think they are doing nothing wrong?
“The children should be treated equally so the benefits of the school should be for everyone.
“We weren’t allowed to go on beaches or whites only villages, certain toilets, buses, trains, we were only allowed to go to school in the coloured community.
“It was tough. We used to stone the army tankers coming to control us because we were fighting for our rights.
“It was hard living in a country that separates because of colour.
“I am upset that my children are going through what I have been through. I have lived through it, I have been in it and have had to fight and I just don’t want to do it again.
“I am in 2012, for goodness sake, in England.
“They can say it is not segregation but it is the same principle – it is no different to discrimination against my skin colour. It is not OK to discriminate against the colour of my skin, but it is OK to discrimination against my religion? It is disgusting. What is different about it? Nothing. There is no difference, no difference at all.”
Mrs Nelson, who also has a nine-year-old son Rory who attends St Peter’s School, is now planning on starting a petition to give to Northumberland County Council in a bid to get the decision overturned, and is calling on all parents to join her cause.
The school’s vice-chairman of governors, Wayne Daley, also county councillor for Cramlington North, added: “I absolutely welcome Mrs Nelson’s call for the Equalities Commission to step in.
“In this day and age to have children segregated on the basis of religion is a backwards step.
“I hope that they do step in, and I will be working in the county council to ensure that there is a resolution to this.
“The old system worked – they were together in the same bus to get to school, and were together at school and that is the system I want returning.
“It is unacceptable to me to have children separated on the bus to and from school – it is apartheid and we need a common sense resolution to this ridiculous situation.
“I think the complaint to the Equalities Commission is absolutely the right thing to do and I hope they will make Northumberland County Council see sense on the matter.”
In a statement Northumberland county council said they had undertaken a re-tendering of all home-to-school transport serving schools based in the south east of the county and had removed transport for fare-paying children in the “interests of making cost savings.”
A spokesman said: “The council has no duty to provide additional capacity on its contracted school transport vehicles to carry non-entitled fare-paying children.
“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.”