Veteran education trouble-shooter and devout Christian Ron Dearing will lead the group charged with plotting the future of church schools, reports Clare Dean
EDUCATION'S Mr Fixit is bringing his talents to the aid of Church of England schools.
Lord Dearing - the man drafted in to review the national curriculum and called in by ministers to deal with crisis after crisis in education - is chairing the Church schools' review group.
Set up by The Archbishops' Council, the eight-strong group has been charged with reviewing the achievements of Church of England schools and making proposals for the future. It meets for the first time on Tuesday.
Lord Dearing said: "After 12 years in the trenches dealing with problems, I am being given a committee dealing with opportunity. Thank God. Usually I'm set up to chair a committee or make an inquiry when there's a crisis.
"With education, it was funding; with schools, it was the curriculum, tests, the credibility of A-levels. But this review is not about problems."
The Church's General Synod believes it has a new opportunity to play a fuller part in English education, in partnership with national and local government. But it fears that if the moment is not seized, that chance may be lost.
Lord Dearing is clearly in a hurry to get the job done. The group will complete its work in 18 months, rather than the three years originally mooted.
"The issue I am interested in - and this is me, personally - is the extent to which the Church sees itself as having a mission in areas of social deprivation.
"Christianity is the religion of hope and people in areas of social deprivation might find that a valuable commodity in a dark world. That is a great part of the case for church schools, as I see it."
The group will also have to look at the funding implications if it is serious about developing the provision of church schools, especially at secondary level.
The Church is keen for the 2,660 "voluntary-controlled" schools to switch to "voluntary-aided" status - a move that would give it a majority on each school's governing body. But the move has a price tag as the 1,917 voluntary-aided schools must find 15 per cent of capital costs, such as building, themselves.
Lord Dearing, who is chairman of the University for Industry, has been a governor of a small church school, is treasurer of his local church and attends church 19 out of 20 Sundays: "I find it a source of refreshment that helps me get through the next week."
He once lived in a Methodist settlement in Bermondsey but now describes himself as "comfortably a ackpewsman in the Church of England".
The C of E provides one primary school in four and one secondary in 20, educating more than 900,000 pupils.
It has a long commitment to schools but said Lord Dearing: "What stands out to this layman is how much the present configuration is the result of history rather than consistent vision."
Large numbers of pupils educated in church primaries do not find a place in a church secondary. Lord Dearing said: "You can't help but ask yourself why that has happened and is that the best way for the Church to discharge its mission?"
He hopes the review group will reach a consensus on the way forward for church schools. As part of its remit, the group will look at how to recruit and train more Christian teachers.
But he said: "That doesn't mean that I personally want a report that doesn't cause anyone to raise an eyebrow or that avoids controversy, if needs be."
Lord Dearing is a veteran of five committees of inquiry: accounting standards, governance in polytechnics, the national curriculum and tests, 16-19 learning and the future of higher education.
At the same time as looking at church schools, he is chairing another committee looking at the role of local authorities alongside regional tiers of government.
He will be 70 next year, but shows no signs of wanting to give up on his work.
"That's the fun of life," he said, "being allowed to look over someone else's garden."
Evidence should be submitted by March 31 to Colin Hopkins, secretary to the Church schools' review group, The Archbishops' Council, Church House, Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3NZ. Or e-mail:
CHURCH SCHOOLS REVIEW GROUP
Lord Dearing, chairman of the University for Industry
Linda Borthwick, director of education, Southwark diocesan board of education
Peter Crook, principal of St Peter's Collegiate School,
Peter Hill, vicar of Calverton, diocese of Southwell;
John Rea, principal of the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth
Christine Whatford, director of education, London
borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
Julie Wilks, head of Archbishop Runcie CE VA first school, Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Rowan Williamson, bishop of Monmouth
Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Westminster
Arthur Pollard, emeritus
professor of English, Hull University; member of the board of education and schools committee
TABLE RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS IN ENGLAND NOT AVAILABLE ON THIS DATABASE.