Playing God against the rest

Oxfordshire has a surplus of secondary school places but plans are afoot to build a new Roman Catholic grant-maintained school. Why? Maureen O'Connor finds powerful vested interests behind the plan.

This is a story of three dioceses, eight parish priests, the Catholic baptismal records of a swathe of semi-rural England, some well-placed supporters at Westminster and the clenched teeth of the educational establishment of Oxfordshire. The cause of the agitation is a proposal to build a brand new Roman Catholic grant-maintained school within the present constituency of John Patten MP, the former Education Secretary and a practising Catholic.

The proposal, already in outline and due to be published formally in July, comes from the Catholic diocese of Portsmouth and is for a 600-strong 11 to 16 GM school in an area where parents currently do not have easy access to a secondary education with an overtly Christian ethos.

The timetable is tight. Formal consultation lasts only two months and campaigners hope that Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, will have the papers on her desk by September. They want a positive decision before a general election is called.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion to found St Bede's, as the school is already named, somewhere in the Vale of the White Horse, has raised political and educational hackles. Oxfordshire is a county which has so far resisted the establishment of any grant-maintained secondary schools at all and has, like most, a problem of surplus secondary school places.

Abingdon and Oxford West MP, John Patten, was incensed when the secondary heads in Abingdon complained about the extension of "sectarian" education. They apologised for their choice of word, but remain angrily opposed to the new school, which they say could severely damage their intakes.

They are by no means alone. Other secondary schools over a wide area of the county regard the creation of a new school as a threat to their numbers, and therefore their budgets. Even before the formal consultation, the county council is working out the extra costs which would fall on them if this unilateral plan goes ahead.

At present Oxfordshire has two Catholic secondary schools, Blessed George Napier in Banbury on the northern edge of the county, and St Augustine's in the city of Oxford to the south.

St Augustine's is an anomoly, however. As pupil numbers, including Catholic numbers, fell in the 1970s it looked unlikely that the Catholics would be able to sustain a viable secondary school at all in the Oxford area. As a result, in the early 1980s the Catholic diocese of Birmingham, under whose jurisdiction Oxford city falls, and the Anglican diocese of Oxford, agreed to establish St Augustine's, a Christian school and a unique joint venture. With a Catholic head and an Anglican chair of governors (soon to be reversed) the school has proved popular with religiously-inclined parents in the city.

But it does not recruit more widely, mainly because Oxford city schools are three-tier, with upper school entry at 13, while the county schools recruit at 11. Catholic parents outside the city have remained reluctant either to move their children at nine to the RC middle school in Oxford, or at 13 to St Augustine's. They have been content until now to send their children to the non-deominational comprehensives in Abingdon, Didcot, Wantage, Carterton and Witney.

This no longer satisfies the group of parish priests and Catholic parents who have set up The Vale of White Horse Catholic Educational Charity. They have the support of the Catholic diocese of Portsmouth, of John Patten and of other Conservatives both locally and nationally who would like to see Lab-Lib Oxfordshire get its come-upance on the grant-maintained issue. So far there has been a resounding silence from the diocese of Birmingham - not unconnected to its existing commitment to St Augustine's.

The rationale for the new school appears superficially sound. Projections from the deanery of the White Horse indicate a rising number of Catholic baptisms in its area, reaching perhaps 190 a year over the next 10 years as the population grows. This, they claim, should sustain an intake of 120 pupils a year for the new school, the minimum intake that the DfEE would approve. If insufficient Catholic pupils applied for places then Christians of other denominations would be admitted.

Ideally, the local deanery would have chosen voluntary-aided status for the new school. But the diocese was unable to meet the 15 per cent of the capital cost and the proportion of the running costs required. The campaign decided that grant maintained status was the only feasible option, one which didn't require church funding or county council approval. A charity was set up to raise money - estimated to be about Pounds 7 million - through an appeal, with the rest to come via the Funding Agency for Schools, with the help of the Private Finance Initiative.

"We are confident we can fill a four-form entry school," says Chris Evans, one of the parents involved in running the appeal, which will be launched if and when the proposal gets approval from the DfEE. He expects a full first form entry of 11-year-olds when the school opens, and is confident that some families with children aged 12 and 13 will transfer them to St Bede's immediately.

The charity is currently looking for a site for the new school, and attracting a mixed reaction as it goes. The original proposal was to build the school in Abingdon, which has the largest concentration of Catholic parents who have expressed an interest. This town is already served by three comprehensives and a sixth form consortium.

It was the Abingdon heads who initially reacted most angrily. "This would offer an unproven benefit to a small group of children at the expense of the rest," says Jeremy Cunningham, head of John Mason School. "At a time when Oxfordshire is in dire straights financially, and my school has lost 20 per cent of its staff over the last two years, we object very strongly to the use of public money for a project for which we think the demand is unproven. "

The search for a site has also focused on the large village of Grove, three miles from Wantage, where some local people welcome the idea of a school of their own. Understandably, King Alfred's School in Wantage does not share this enthusiasm and is watching the progress of the scheme as anxiously as its neighbours.

The county council's education management sub-committee has reacted to the proposals with a mixture of scepticism and concern. The scepticism is over the proposed number of Catholic children who would be prepared to travel quite considerable distances to the new school - which would be less accessible in Grove than in Abingdon. The proposers' own assumptions are based on an intake of around 12 per cent from the towns of Witney, Kidlington and Thame in the diocese of Birmingham, which are between 15 and 18 miles away from any likely site for St Bede's.

When it is suggested that these distances are too great, Chris Evans says that his projections are based only on families who say they are prepared to travel. Some Roman Catholics in Witney, for instance, said in response to the campaign's exploratory survey, that a daily journey to Abingdon was not feasible.

Oxfordshire's education committee is also alarmed at the knock-on costs of a grant-maintained school dropped into a system which is already runing 15 per cent below capacity, and is still forecast to be 9 per cent overprovided in 2002. County officers predict that the GM school would push spare places back up to 14 per cent in that year.

Net additional costs to the local authority would be more than Pounds 250,000 a year, plus an additional cost of between Pounds 45,000 and Pounds 60, 000 for school transport to the new school for a 10 mile radius. The committee concluded that "in a regime of capping, the additional costs could only be found by cuts in existing services and school budgets."

The success of the project is by no means assured. Planning permission may be a problem. The pupil number forecasts are being challenged. The creation of extra surplus places may not appeal to Gillian Shephard, unless her arm is twisted very hard.

Things could get worse. There is already talk in Oxford of allowing St Augustine's to admit 11-year-olds from outside the city - a pre-emptive strike which could threaten St Bede's potential intake. Then there is the threat of an unsympathetic county council getting the backing of a new government, hostile to new GM schools even if it approves of denominational education. Time does not appear to be on the side of St Bede's, however powerful its friends in high places.

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