Architect of church school boom moves on

Charismatic Canon John Hall, the Church of England's head of education, is to become dean of Westminster

In the past it was something of an anonymous position and certainly not one that warranted too many column inches. But in recent years the Rev Canon John Hall, head of education at the Church of England, has emerged as one of the most influential figures in national education.

Through a blend of concession, controversy and charisma, he has helped raise both the profile and number of church schools at a time when they have faced some of their fiercest critics.

Now, after eight years as the Anglicans' chief education officer, Canon Hall is set to move on after being named as the new dean of Westminster, one of the church's most high-profile positions.

As dean, the urbane 57-year-old will take overall charge of the abbey, conducting many of the services of national commemoration held there. They have included the funerals of the Queen Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Queen's golden jubilee in the last 10 years.

It marks the culmination of a slow, but steady rise for Canon Hall, who started his career as an RE teacher at an east Hull comprehensive, before being ordained in 1973.

"The last decade or so has been a strange one as far as the church goes,"

said Canon Hall, who also served as a minister in south London before becoming head of education in the Blackburn diocese.

"We have experienced a strong affirmation from parents and clear signs that they want a good education for their child by sending them to a church school.

"But on the other hand, because of the times in which we live, we have had many opponents and questions about whether our schools are contributing to social cohesion. It has all had the cumulative effect of raising the profile of my position."

One of his most lasting legacies will be overseeing a huge expansion of Anglican schools, at a time when falling rolls have seen other primaries and secondaries shut down across the country.

Some 50 non-religious secondary schools have converted to the CofE in the past four years and Anglican leaders are also in talks with a further 50 as the church attempts to meet its goal of creating 100 new secondary schools by 2008, in line with proposals set out in a report by Lord Dearing.

Canon Hall also won a reputation for winning concessions for the church's position, with a little help from his colleagues spiritual in the House of Lords, in the numerous pieces of education legislation debated on during his tenure.

He has been quick to embrace the Government's academies and trust schools programmes, which put control of state schools in the hands of businesses, charities and religious groups, saying last year that some 200 new CofE schools could be created under the plans. He has also been seen as something of a moderniser.

Despite attracting some criticism from within the church, he supported the introduction of humanism in religious education lessons and said all Anglican schools should embrace the Government's voluntary national framework for the subject, introduced in 2004.

He has also promised a more transparent approach to school admissions, saying a common policy should be introduced and local dioceses should be able to report any school which flouts rules on selection to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

Elsewhere, he has been resistant to change. He told John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme that collective worship in schools was here to stay.

And he was singing from the same hymn sheet when he helped to shape a policy saying that ministers should resist pressure from secular groups and trade unions to reform laws on daily acts of worship in schools.

It is not yet known who will succeed him.

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