Sectarian row over school closure

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
The row between churches over the axing of a joint Anglican-Catholic school could end in court, reports Amanda Kelly.

THE fate of one of the handful of joint Anglican and Roman Catholic schools in England has split the two churches and could result in an unprecedented High Court battle.

St Augustine upper school in Oxford is threatened by the Catholic Church's plans to close it following reorganisation of the city's three-tier education system into more conventional primaries and secondaries.

Most of the school's governors and staff, as well as Oxford's Church of England diocese and the local council want to keep the school's dual nature, and lower the admissions age from 13 to 11.

But St Augustine comes under the Catholic archdiocese in Birmingham, which favours closure and the opening of a new, wholly Catholic secondary in the city.

School closures and re-organisations are now decided by "organisation committees" of local stakeholders - 150 of these were set up last year under new legislation. Decisions must be unanimous, however, or the decision is referred to a central adjudicating body.

The St Augustine issue will be voted on at Oxford's school organisation committee on Monday. The committee includes representatives from Anglican and Catholic dioceses, the local authority, and the Further Education Funding Council as well as governors.

Feelings are so strong that a unanimous decision is highly unlikely. The matter looks setto be referred to the independent adjudicator whose decision could ultimately be challenged in a judicial review.

The Archbishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev Vincent Nichols, believes there are enough parents wanting to send their children to a Catholic secondary to justify establishing one. He said: "My first duty is to do all I can to create opportunities for Catholics to be formed and grow in this faith.

"To seek the establishment of a Catholic school is not an action that goes against ecumenism but rather one that seeks to provide firm and clear foundations for it."

However, those who support the school, which admits Catholics and Anglicans on a 2:1 ratio, cite its unique and successful character and claim a solely Catholic school would not be viable.

Joan Townsend, chair of governors, said: "It takes a long time to establish a climate in which a school can thrive and we have done that."

The issue has sparked divisions not only between the two denomination but also within the Catholic community. Pat Bolton, a Catholic mother with a 14-year-old son at the school, said: "It is not just Anglican parents who want the school to stay open.

"The fact that it has children from both faiths gives pupils a far broader education. My son has a good friend who is Anglican and they have sat down and discussed their faiths and realised how much they have in common. This would not happen if they were forced to go to separate schools."

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