New head of the Anglican Board of Education defends building programme. Nicholas Pyke and Adi Bloom report
Creating more Church of England schools will help counter the threat of religious fundamentalism, according to the new head of the Anglican education service.
In his first interview as chairman of the Board of Education, the Bishop of Portsmouth defended the decision to build up to 100 more Anglican secondaries, saying that they are a force for unity rather than division.
"A lot of church schools do absolutely first-class work in RE in pointing pupils to the importance of other religions and other faiths," said the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stephenson. "There are religious fundamentalists and secularist fundamentalists who blink at the sheer levels of support that Church schools have."
He said Anglican schools are very popular with parents from non-Christian faiths, and promised to ensure that Britain's Muslims are respected in the classroom.
Dr Stephenson took up his five-year appointment earlier this month, succeeding the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev Alan Chesters. The job puts him in charge of roughly 200 secondary schools, and 4,000 primaries, around a quarter of the total in England, and means he is the Church's spokesman on education in the House of Lords.
The Church has enjoyed a good relationship with the Government, and it is a measure of Alan Chesters' success in the post that the guests at his retirement party included the current Education Secretary, Charles Clarke and his predecessor, David Blunkett.
Alan Chesters oversaw the Church's first expansionist moves since the Second World War, commissioning and accepting a review by Lord Dearing suggesting that up to 100 more Anglican secondary schools are needed.
Dr Stephenson, a theologian, is thought of as a political animal, if an emollient one, and is already a regular spokesman in Parliament. He has less direct experience of running education than his predecessor. But, at 53, he has seen four children of his own go through the state and private school system, with one still at university.
Universities and further education are likely to emerge as new concerns for the Church in coming years, particularly student debt.
Within his diocese, he has a reputation as a middle-of-the-road churchman.
Michael Jordan, his diocesan secretary, said: "He's not at either extreme of the political spectrum. He's certainly not going to frighten the horses in any way."
He favours the ordination of women, but was not a leading campaigner for it. His current stance will ensure family harmony: one of his three daughters is studying for the priesthood. He has a reputation as a family man - his children rank "next to God" in his priorities, said Mr Jordan.
Dr Stephenson, a former student chaplain for Manchester University, has long had an interest in education. Mr Jordan said: "He won't just be a figurehead. He will take part in initiatives, and will probably have initiatives of his own."