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Patten backs plan for new GM school

Clare Dean reports that two religious groups are choosing the opt-in option.

Former education secretary John Patten is backing plans for a new Catholic grant-maintained secondary school in his Oxfordshire constituency.

He is patron of the Friends of St Bede's - the name given to the school which would serve the children of Catholic parents in the west and south of the county.

Proposals for the new school, three years in the pipeline, will be presented to the quango which administers opted-out finance within the next six weeks.

They are understood to have the backing not only of Mr Patten but also of Robert Jackson, the former higher education minister, a fellow Oxfordshire MP.

More than 700 families out of 750 surveyed in the Vale of White Horse area have also indicated their support for the school.

The proposal is one of two in England from religious groups for new grant maintained schools, which the Government would fund almost entirely. The other scheme is for a Jewish high school in Leeds.

Meanwhile, in Wales a group of parents are hoping to set up a co-educational comprehensive in Usk, Monmouthshire.

The proposals come just five months after the Prime Minister's drive to expand the opted-out sector. All have been in the planning stages for several years.

In Oxfordshire, there are more than 650 children whose parents have said they would attend a Catholic secondary if one were available. The nearest at present are at least 30 miles away in Swindon, High Wycombe, Reading or Banbury.

In Leeds, which has a 10,000-strong Jewish community, there is no Jewish high school, which means that every day a dozen children travel to school in Manchester.

A planning application for a Jewish high school in north Leeds was turned down last year by the city council for road safety reasons and because it was a green-belt site.

The Leeds Jewish High School Trust is considering appealing against the decision, and Stephen Umpleby, one of its trustees, said: "This has been an issue for us for the past 20 or 30 years. It has always been our desire to have a Jewish high school."

In Oxfordshire, parents claim there is a proven denominational demand for the new school and Chris Bevan, programme director for a Catholic education trust based in Abingdon, said:" All we are trying to do is exercise our right to a Catholic school."

Local headteachers have objected to the proposal on the grounds they are opposed to denominational segregated education.

If approved, the Government would fund 85 per cent of the cost of the new schools, and parents in Oxfordshire and Leeds would need to raise Pounds 1 million and between Pounds 1.25m and Pounds 1.5m respectively.

Mr Bevan said neither the diocese nor the local authority could finance the new school. "The only option for us is GM."

Sites for the Catholic secondary are being investigated. In Leeds, the Jewish community has spent Pounds 1.25m on a plot subject to it being granted planning permission.

Proposals for the new GM school in Wales - to be called the Roger Edwards School - were formally lodged with the Welsh Office in December.

If the Welsh Secretary gives his assent, it would be the first new-build grant-maintained school in Wales, and possibly the first in the UK.

The 800-pupil school for children aged 11 to 18 would specialise in information technology. Robert Isaac, who has led the two-year campaign for the school, envisages it would be built on a greenfield site within walking distance of Usk's town centre.

He said: "We strongly believe that the creation of a small state secondary is very attractive when compared to the loss of identity and social ill- effects which are suffered in very large overcrowded schools."

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