Church leaders have condemned a controversial decision to charge pupils for transport to their schools.

Children at Catholic and Church Of England schools in West Sussex will have to pay for their buses, trains and taxis after county council bosses decided to scrap subsidies.

From September 2008 new pupils at the faith schools will have to pay up to £270 a year to cover travel costs.

Frank Myers, education director for the Catholic diocese of Brighton and Arundel, said: "We are extremely disappointed. This decision was strongly opposed during the council consultation. It has taken the county in the opposite direction from much of the region.

"There is free transport for all children in London and it is being introduced in Kent."

Free transport has been provided for children to travel to the nearest school of their religious faith for decades because long journeys are often required.

West Sussex County Council said £860,000 was spent last year on ferrying 1,900 church school pupils to and from their lessons, costing taxpayers £450 per child.

It will introduce termly transport charges of £60 for pupils at more than 70 primary schools affected and £90 for students at the eight secondaries.

Peter Wickert, headteacher of Holy Trinity Church of England Secondary School in Gossops Green, Crawley, said: "We are very alarmed at this penny-pinching decision which is not only anti-faith but also anti-choice and against all the government's concerns about proposed reductions in car usage and the impact on global warming."

Holy Trinity parent Iain Mitchell said his daughter Hannah, 11, used a free bus to reach the school each day from the family home in Little Bridges Close in Southwater, near Horsham.

Mr Mitchell now faces a dilemma about whether to send his nine-year-old son Chris to the school as well.

Mr Mitchell said: "I very much want my son to go there. We're committed Christians and believe in denominational education but I resent what the council is doing. It is not so much the money but the principle involved. It will add up to quite a lot for some families.

"The ridiculous thing is that because we live three and a half miles away from my son's catchment area school, Tanbridge House in Horsham, the council will subsidise his travel there.

"If that is the case I don't see why they won't pay for his travel to Holy Trinity. It isn't a cost-cutting measure, it is picking on faith schools."

West Sussex county councillor Mark Dunn, responsible for the decision, said: "This change is necessary to ensure that we are providing a fair system for all concerned whilst continuing to make provision for children to attend church schools some way from their homes."

"At the same time the county council has been put under pressure to find ways to ensure that its budgets are used cost-effectively at a time of poor grant settlements from government.

"I recognise and value the significant contribution that church schools make to the education of children in West Sussex and every effort will be made to ensure that these changes are introduced as smoothly as possible."

Mr Myers said the decision would lead to increased congestion and pollution on the county's roads and was bound to deter parents from choosing to send their children to faith schools.

He said: "Families who cannot now afford to pay for transport will be forced to look for places at their nearest community school, which will increase competition with others."

The council said free travel arrangements for existing faith school pupils will continue and stressed that families on low incomes will continue to receive free transport.

Coun Dunn's decision will take affect from Friday, May 18, unless it is called-in for review by other members of the council.

The churches have also been fighting moves to axe free transport to church schools in East Sussex. Last week East Sussex County Council agreed to delay making any decision on the issue until next month so further discussions could be held.

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