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Charismatic canon who loves limelight

Faith school legislation has put the C of E's chief education officer where he likes to be - in the thick of the fray. Caroline Hendrie reports.

Canon John Hall is the general secretary of the Church of England's board of education and its chief education officer, though the Rev Fix-It might be a more accurate title.

As the education Bill, with its implications for faith schools, makes its parliamentary progress, he finds himself where he likes to be - in the thick of deals on amendments and with the clout of the bishops in the House of Lords to support him. In the upper chamber, the Church has a notable record for getting its way.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Alan Chesters, chairman of the board of education, said: "He is a mover and a shaker. He is the right person in the right place at this time for the Church of England.

He speaks with authority and can address large gatherings in a way that inspires confidence. He has the gift of giving people a vision of what might be achieved."

Canon Hall was the driving force behind the Dearing Report published last year which aims to expand the number of church schools.

He told The TES: "We are seeing great over-subscription in secondary schools and are concerned that large numbers are being turned away. In many areas there is no access at all, so that is a strong message to the Church and the wider community to provide additional places, equal to 100 new secondaries over seven or eight years."

While that time frame is seen by some as over-optimistic, there is no doubt about his commitment to giving the maximum number of children a C of E education.

Liz Paver, head of Intake primary school in Doncaster, who worked with him for many years when he was based in Blackburn, has clashed with him over the requirement for schools to have compulsory worship. She says it is not always practical. Even so, she said: "He is a great encourager, an all-round good egg."

A colleague at Church House said: "He is a man with a mission, absolutely committed to the work of the board of education, the Church of England schools in particular. He has a strong view of what the Church is about, and a very strong faith which underlies all that."

Canon Hall said: "I have always been passionate about Christianity and passionate about education, and I am extremely fortunate that I am able to be passionate about both in my work. In my late teens I became aware of my vocation to ordination and in my early teens a vocation to teach."

John Hall came from a Christian home. His father, an accountant at the Woolwich building society, was a churchwarden for 14 years, and his mother was an active member of their local church in Eltham, south-east London. He went to Roper Street school, a C of E primary, and won a scholarship to St Dunstan's College, the independent boys' day school in Catford. He read theology at St Chad's College, Durham, and started his professional life as an RE teacher at a comprehensive school in Hull, before taking holy orders in 1975. He was a parish priest in south London for 16 years, six as vicar of St Peter's in Streatham. In 1992 he was appointed director of education of the diocese of Blackburn, which has the most church schools of any diocese.

The gregarious 52-year-old canon is single. He is a bon vivant, a generous host at his club, the Athenaeum. He has a dog, an increasingly infirm mongrel terrier Toby, adopted as a puppy from Battersea dogs' home 12 years ago.

As general secretary of the education board he is strikingly different from his predecessors. Very much a leader rather than a servant of the board, he is more of an entrepreneur and long-term strategist.

Margaret Holness, education correspondent of The Church Times, said: "He is much more up-front than previous general secretaries. They wouldn't ever say anything, always, 'I'll have to ask my bishop'. He is much more open and makes the running himself. He is extremely confident,very witty and rather a charmer, you always feel better when you talk to him."

Others, though, may find his manner rather overbearing: "He is full-bodied, quite often a bit in your face. When he gets excited his voice gets louder and louder and louder. And he is such a name dropper."

Described as a smooth operator, with acute political antennae, he is not shy of the glare of the media. Someone who met him just after he had been interviewed on Radio 4 by John Humphrys, said: "He was ecstatic. He is very excited by the cut and thrust of politics. He loves parliament and the role of the church at national level, he relishes it."

So what next for the dynamic and charismatic canon who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of ecclesiastical protocol?

A C of E insider said: "He is ambitious for purple. He would probably deny it but it is very obvious to anyone who meets him he would love to be a bishop."

Deny it he did not, but when asked replied curtly and quite rightly: "That is not a proper question to anybody."

But whether the call comes or not, it would seem in his current position he wields more influence on the national stage than even a bishop.

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