Lessons in PR for Ms Trappist

WHEN The TES described Oona Stannard as "Trappist" earlier this year, it was no more than a joking reference to her low profile. As most people will need reminding, she is director of the Catholic Education Service, an organisation which has made little impression on TV, radio or the public prints despite 12 months of controversy about the role of faith schools.

It seems the "Trappist" barb hit home. No sooner was it published than the Catholic Church's official media office had issued an "operational note" telling journalists that they should ring Ms Stannard for comments. In the past two weeks she has appeared in the press, on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Channel 4's Powerhouse political slot and the World Service. She denounced the proposal that all new faith schools be forced to take a 15 per cent quota of children from different religious backgrounds, calling it "wholly unacceptable". The proposal, sponsored by Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, and Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, was defeated last week in the House of Commons.

The CES looks after the interests of 2,400 Catholic schools and, perhaps more importantly, the interests of 22 Catholic bishops, to whom it is responsible. Its job ranges from lobbying politicians and civil servants to devising policies for the Catholic sector. Ms Stannard, appointed as its director in 1999, was recruited from the cautious ranks of HM Inspectorate.

The 45-year-old was born in west London, the daughter of a Welsh Baptist father who converted to Catholicism and an Ulster Catholic. She was educated at a county primary school followed by the Sacred Heart high school in Hammersmith. She taught secondary design and technology, science and health education in London, before spending 10 years as an inspector with the Office for Standards in Education, much of that time working under Chris Woodhead. One of her specialisms was gender equality - she has always preferred Ms to Mrs - and before taking up her new job she inspected local education authorities.

The CES has suffered particularly from comparisons with its Anglican counterpart, the Board of Education, and its media-savvy general secretary Canon John Hall. It was also perhaps wrong-footed by the Church of England's aggressive policy of calling for 100 new Anglican secondary schools. The Catholic sector has no intention of expanding. Last week it said it could not afford to provide more school places for children of other faiths or none.

But it would be unfair to suggest that, just because the CES has kept a low profile, it has been ineffective elsewhere. Certainly its briefing notes were in evidence during the Commons debate about the proposed 15 per cent quota. The CES has also taken action on the chronic shortage of Catholic heads and deputies, setting up a working group with an ex-chief education officer at the head. It is expected to deliver a strategy for approval by the bishops after Easter.

It is also fair to say that Ms Stannard has less freedom than her Anglican counterpart, Canon Hall, who was apparently free to invent the expansion policy single-handed. In contrast, the CES has to tread carefully, reflecting the opinions of all 22 autonomous dioceses (each bishop owes first allegiance to Rome rather than Westminster). CES insiders say that working for the Bishop's Conference is every bit as complicated as working for Chris Woodhead's OFSTED.

Ms Stannard readily admits to disliking the attention that goes with the job and is yet to develop the system of background briefings that her predecessor employed. "I don't have any appetite for publicity, I'm afraid," she said this week. "I'm very keen to do the work and do it well. But I don't relish the limelight at all."

With the notable exception of the Catholic Aid for Overseas Development, Catholic institutions have been happy to cultivate a low profile, preferring to watch after their own interests. That, however, is about to change. For the first time, the Church has appointed a professional PR man to head its official media office. Scarred by its incompetent handling of child abuse cases, and with all institutions now open to greater public scrutiny, the Church has decided that its agencies can no longer stand aside from public debate, the education service among them.

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