He who would valiant be

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Nicholas Pyke meets the Church civil servant who has already proved that he's not afraid of controversy

By clerical standards, the Reverend Canon John Robert Hall has made quite an entrance. Since April, Canon Hall has been general secretary of the Church of England's Board of Education, which has the potential to be a very dull post indeed.

Working from Church House in Westminster, directly opposite the Department for Education and Employment, he is effectively the head of the Church's educational civil service. Previous holders of his office have chosen to eschew the media limelight.

But Canon Hall is rather more robust. Within weeks of his appointment he was rowing with headteachers and telling John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme that daily acts of collective worship are here to stay. He went further. He said every school has a duty to teach children how to pray. A colleague said: "He has a very clear grasp of the Church's role. He won't let the Church be pushed around. It should be good."

Canon Hall, an urbane, privately-educated 49-year-old, could easily be mistaken for a Church mandarin which, according to those who know him, he is not. They say he is far from a dog-collar politician, driven instead by a wholehearted interest in education.

John Hall had already done a spell as head of RE in an east Hull comprehensive, Malot Lambert High School, before his ordination in 1973. Since then he has served in south London before moving to be head of education in the Blackburn diocese. It was Blackburn Cathedral where he picked up his title as Residentiary Canon.

He made regular appearances on Radio Lancashire, which he admits to rather enjoying, and took little prompting to appear on the Today programme - or, indeed, to write a recent opinion piece for The TES.

He says he has been frustrated by the perception that the Church is rather fuzzy, not to say, divided in its views: "We do have a position and I believe it is important to state it clearly," he says. Colleagues say that, privately, he has been frustrated by the Church's low profile in matters of education: "The policy on collective worship has not changed, although I agree I may have stated it rather more directly." We have, he says, a natural instinct both for worship and prayer, and schools of all persuasion should play their developing that interest. But he does not want to appear to criticise teachers who he believes need much more help and guidance on questions of worship than they actually receive.

He built up a reputation as a canny operator in the Blackburn diocese, an area where diplomatic skills are important. As more than half schools in the area are Anglican or Catholic, he had to work closely with both the local education authority and the religious opposition. Blackburn has a number of joint Church of England Methodist schools, giving Canon Hall considerable practical experience of ecumenism.

He has also proved effective at a national level. taking the credit for negotiating substantially greater Church and diocesan powers in the new School Standards and Framework Act. Whether this will encourage Anglican grant-maintained schools - used to a fair amount of independence - to return to the LEA fold remains open to question.

He already has a vast and rather baggy brief. Officially, his job is to implement the policies determined by the General Synod's Board of Education and the Church's National Society for Promoting Religious Education. His responsibilities range from Sunday Schools, through the 4,800 Church primaries and secondaries, to higher education and the dozen or so Church colleges.

Undeterred, Canon Hall wants to make his burden larger still and is actively looking to set up more Church of England secondary schools. "We're very well provided for at primary level, but at secondary the picture is patchy. It is terribly disappointing to have to turn children away," he says.

General secretary is, in the scale of things, an important position, - although not as important as Chairman of the Board of Education who gets to sit in the House of Lords. The current chair, his immediate boss, is David Young, Bishop of Ripon. Will Canon Hall follow him, eventually, to the red leather benches?

To date he has been far from self-serving, say his friends. Instead of playing to the national grandstand, he chose to work hard in Blackburn and build his reputation there. But it should also be remembered that he was known in Southwark as "the man with a mitre in his brief case".

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