Mosque in talks to run Catholic primary
A mosque is in talks to take over the running of a Catholic primary school in the first switch of its kind following a dramatic change in pupil intake.
Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Blackburn is to close after the proportion of Catholic children at the school fell from 91 to just 3 per cent over the past ten years.
The Diocese of Salford has told the local council that it no longer believes it is "appropriate" for the church to be in charge. Local authority officials are now in discussions with a number of other organisations - including Blackburn's Tauheedul mosque and the Church of England - about taking over Sacred Heart.
The mosque is already responsible for a voluntary aided Islamic girls' secondary school in the town. If it took over the primary this would "provide increased diversity. and offer a faith school that matches the population in this area of the town", according to a report presented to Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council's executive.
Geraldine Bradbury, director of education at the Diocese of Salford, said population shifts meant there were only "five or six" Catholic pupils left at the school.
"We have never experienced a change to this extent before," she said. "We want to make sure that the educational needs of the community are met.
"We would not be serving the local community by insisting that we run the school. It brings things like having a Catholic headteacher and devoting 10 per cent of the timetable to RE. It would be very wrong of us to insist on putting a school community through that."
Hamid Patel, principal and chief executive of Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School, said the mosque was interested in becoming involved with the school.
"Given that almost all of the pupils are Muslim it makes sense for us to engage with the school," he said.
"We will need more information on the expectations of the local authority, but if the community and the school want us to be involved, then yes, we are interested."
The growth in the number of minority faith schools has been slower than hoped by the previous government, which had promised to remove the barriers stopping their expansion.
But the Government has also spoken in favour of faith schools. Education Secretary Michael Gove named five among the list of the first 16 free schools to open next year, including two Jewish schools, a Sikh school and a Hindu primary.
Switching the religious character of a school is a complicated process that will result in Sacred Heart officially closing and then re-opening as a new school.
The new provider will be decided by a competition, under which different organisations bid to be put in charge. The council believes it would be unsuccessful in applying to turn Sacred Heart into a non-religious community school because of the Coalition's "stated preference for. new faith schools and free schools".
The council has insisted the change will not cause disruption for pupils and that the school will retain its staff.
The move by the diocese to hand over control follows promotion of the diverse intake of Catholic schools during the visit of the Pope last week.
James Gray, education officer at the British Humanist Association, said: "This demonstrates that religious authorities do not always see education as a means of serving the local community. They have decided there are not enough Catholics and want to wash their hands of the school."