Religious blocks to building

28th May 2004 at 01:00
As the headteacher of a Catholic voluntary-aided secondary school, can I participate in the Building Schools for the Future initiative?

The short answer to your question is "yes, but". The declared purpose of BSF is to bring about the complete transformation of secondary schools over the next 10 years or so. This means all secondary schools. It is thought that there will be an average of pound;10 million expenditure on every secondary, although there will probably be big variations between individual schools. Therefore it is difficult to predict how much you are going to get.

The money can be spent on the complete replacement of your school, major refurbishment or some combination of the two. When precisely your school comes on line for BSF depends on which local education authority you are in. Six LEAs have pathfinder status and planning is under way.

A further 11 local education authorities have been designated for "wave 1" and come on line from 2005-6. Each LEA has been asked to submit its proposals for a phased programme. These submissions are required to include VA schools like yours. Therefore if you contact your LEA it can tell you what its plans are for your school.

On educational and building grounds alone you should try to become fully informed. It would not only be good practice but also courteous for your LEA to consult you, your governors and your diocese.

With voluntary-aided schools, though, nothing is ever straightforward.

There are some vital principles and numerous practical matters to get clear immediately. These need to be addressed at both local and national levels.

First, you and your governors will be all too aware that capital investment in your school carries a 10 per cent liability. While you or your diocese may be in a position to meet this liability locally, the numbers on this one indicate that nationally the Catholic Church would have to pick up the tab for something like pound;250m to deal with BSF. Not even a comprehensive programme of second collections at Mass will sort this out.

Therefore, at the moment, unless the Government does something quickly, BSF will not happen in the VA sector. The Department for Education and Skills is aware of this major stumbling block to its initiative and negotiations are under way.

While it would be very generous of the Government to waive the 10 per cent liability, the schools would not want this at the expense of their rights on admissions, the composition of their governing bodies and matters related to their fundamental mission enshrined in their trust deeds.

In the meantime there are a number of practical steps you could take.

First, have you got a set of building plans for the school that show how you would like it to be? It may be worth commissioning architects to do this so that you can ensure that any building work that takes place before BSF complements the wider long-term plans for the school. And you will be able to judge whether smaller, short-term improvements represent value for money.

However, the purpose of this huge capital investment is to transform the way we operate as learners in the schools of the future. If you really want to embrace this initiative, this is the real challenge of BSF for the leadership of your school.

Pat McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college in Bradford. email questions to

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