High-performing Catholic schools are to be given considerable influence over the running and performance of struggling secular schools under plans being drawn up by the Church and government.
Catholic schools are currently bound by strict rules that mean they cannot form federations with their non-faith counterparts. But with the growth of the academies programme and the diminishing influence of local authorities, the Church wants to make a "greater contribution" to the running of different types of schools.
The move has prompted criticism from the National Secular Society, which said it could lead to Catholic schools imposing their faith with "proselytising zeal" on those they are supposed to be helping.
But Paul Barber, the new director of the Catholic Education Service, said that Church schools had an important contribution to make. "The point is that Catholic schools are part of a partnership with the state. They feel strongly that they are part of the wider family along with other schools; they share that collective responsibility.
"Many of our schools feel very strongly that they want to make a contribution to that wider scene."
Mr Barber, former head of education at the Diocese of Westminster, said that while many Catholic schools were already involved in assisting community schools, some wanted to establish "firmer partnerships" that included shared governance.
"We are trying to explore the various ways in which Catholic schools can, if they wish to, assist other schools, including those which aren't Catholic. We are looking at other mechanisms, other forms of trust arrangements," he said.
The plan follows a similar ambition outlined more than a year ago by the Church of England, which also wanted to offer partnerships and advice to non-Church schools.
There are almost 2,200 Catholic schools in England, around one in 10 of the national total. Seventy-four per cent of the Church's primary schools are classed as good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 64 per cent nationally, according to Mr Barber. More than 71 per cent of its secondaries were good or outstanding - also above average, he said.
"I think we have a disproportionate number of strong schools and we clearly have a lot to offer," he said. "Many of our outstanding schools are already assisting others but there is scope there to do a lot more."
Mr Barber added that Catholic schools had "general principles about ethos and values" that could be brought to a wider community.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said that faith schools should not have a say in how secular schools were run. "Whenever you have a merger or amalgamation of a faith and non-faith school, everything always leans towards faith," he said. "What if Catholic schools start to insist on a Catholic head or they want to sack people who don't want to teach RE?"
A report by the British Humanist Association last year highlighted that, in the past five years, a number of schools had been redesignated as faith schools, but that no schools had lost their religious character.
Last year, for example, the non-faith Village Infants School in Dagenham, East London, merged with William Ford Junior School to become a voluntary-aided Church of England primary. Teachers went on strike in opposition to the move, complaining that admissions criteria might be changed in favour of Christian students.
The Department for Education confirmed that it was in talks with the Catholic Education Service. "We are keen to build up the number of outstanding schools that can provide support as sponsors to underperforming schools," a spokesman said. "As part of this, we are talking to a range of bodies and organisations to explore how they can help undertake this important role."