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Church takes the Treasury carrot

Glasgow has finally launched itself into one of the most ambitious secondary school reorganisation projects in the country - with the blessing of the Treasury and a Damascus conversion by the Roman Catholic Church.

In a carefully timed series of manoeuvres, the city council's strife-torn Labour group approved the closures programme on Wednesday after the Treasury announced it was one of 50 "significant" projects in the UK likely to be funded with private finance.

The Catholic Church, which had previously dismissed the use of private investment in school buildings and new technology as "naive, problematic and questionable", has now accepted the deal as the basis for its support.

It emerged this week that Treasury approval pushes the value of the investment to Pounds 100 million from Pounds 72 million over the next three years if private sector involvement is agreed. In addition, Pounds 14 million will be available from the Scottish Office for next year alone.

Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education convener, pledged there would be immediate restoration of staffing standards to the levels of two years ago and increased expenditure on supplies to both primary and secondary schools.

The city's education committee and full council are now set to approve a package next Tuesday which will alter the secondary education map of Glasgow, a prospect which looked very remote when The TES Scotland first revealed the plans last September. The "Lallygate" preoccupation of the Labour group, with allegations of misconduct levelled against senior councillors, is said to have helped dilute opposition to the closures.

The decision involves the immediate closure of six secondaries: St Leonard's, Garthamlock, John Street, North Kelvinside, Victoria Drive and St Augustine's. The axe will almost certainly fall on St Gerard's Secondary, which has held two opt-out ballots to delay the process. The Secretary of State will not deliver his expected rejection of the second vote, 120 to 6 in favour of opting out, for three months.

Councillors have also taken the controversial step of agreeing that Notre Dame Secondary could become gradually coeducational, beginning with the first-year intake in 1999. But, as The TES Scotland revealed last month, the school will not be moved into the vacant North Kelvinside building as planned.

The other features of the programme, which are dependent on successful negotiations over private finance, will see Crookston Castle and Penilee secondaries merge in a new building on the latter site, and the closure of Woodside secondary which will move with Hillhead High into a new school. Assuming no hitches, Glasgow will be left with 29 secondaries instead of 38, saving Pounds 9 million.

But the contentious issue of Catholic schooling is still unresolved. Councillors have agreed to delay any decision for a month, abandoning tentative plans for St Margaret Mary's Secondary and Castlemilk High to share a campus and putting on hold a move by Bellarmine Secondary into the empty building formerly used by Craigbank Secondary.

The Catholic Church had strenuously opposed these plans. In fresh proposals which it has put to the council, the Church says it will support "radical revision" of denominational schooling on Glasgow's south side, including the merger of Bellarmine into Lourdes Secondary and the closure of St Margaret Mary's, provided they are replaced by a new 1,400-pupil secondary. This would also relieve the pressure on the 2,000-pupil Holyrood Secondary.

But this could prove hugely controversial as it would involve transferring three middle-class primaries from Holyrood's catchment area to that of the new school.

In an unpublished submission, the Church says it is "confident that most parents would prefer two equally strong Catholic schools in the area to one overcrowded school and one under-capacity school".

The Church is also pressing for another three new Catholic secondaries, making a total of Pounds 50 million as the price of acquiescence in the closure of five of its schools and a change in character for Notre Dame Secondary. Earlier it had dismissed the closure programme as "breathtakingly naive".

Now it says it is prepared to take "a strategic overview". Acceptance of change at Notre Dame is based on "a long-term plan" for a new school "at or near the current site".

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