More than 40 non-religious secondary schools have converted to the Church of England in the past four years, new figures reveal. Anglican leaders are also in talks with a further 54 community comprehensives which are considering a similar switch or will be turned into C of E-sponsored academies.
It means that the church appears almost certain to meet its goal of creating 100 new secondary schools by 2008, in line with proposals set out in a report by Lord Dearing - the former government adviser and architect of student top-up fees. In the study four years ago, he said that the extra faith schools should be built to cater for growing demand from parents for a faith-based education.
The original plan was to raise pound;25 million for the project by 2008.
But figures released by the Church of England this week show that it is close to reaching the goal of 100 new schools three years early, due in part to the number of non-religious secondaries converting to the church.
Since 2001, 45 secular schools in England have successfully applied to become voluntary-aided Anglican faith schools or academies, and local diocese leaders are in advanced talks with a further 54. The figures include more than 20 academies being sponsored or part-sponsored by the church. In Leicester, two are being jointly backed by millionaire meat magnate David Samworth.
Wyvern college, in Salisbury, Wiltshire, became a C of E school in 2003 and pupil numbers have risen. The boys' school has an open admissions policy that does not demand religious observance.
Glynnis Seddon, principal, said: "We decided to convert because we wanted to further develop the ethos of the school. We take youngsters from around 30 primary schools, 29 of which were Catholic, C of E or Methodist. The boys were coming here with a Christian background which was not being followed through."
Chris Tomes, head of maths at Wyvern, said: "I have been inspired by the change. There has been an encouraging reaction from pupils and teachers alike. Assemblies take place every day and provide a sense of peace and direction. They often deal with a Bible story or parable and have both a Christian and secular message."
Lynn Gill, deputy head of St Hild's C of E school in Hartlepool, which converted from a community school in 2001, said: "It has boosted staff and pupil morale. The whole ethos of the school has changed. The behaviour of the pupils has improved, and they are calmer. It is difficult to say, however, whether that is only down to the new faith element of the school."
The high number of schools adopting a religious character comes despite claims by the official admissions body that faith-based schools often only outperform their secular neighbours because they select pupils.
Last year the Office for the Schools Adjudicator rejected a request by Southborough boys secondary modern, Surrey, to become a C of E school, saying there was no evidence that a Christian ethos alone would raise standards. Alan Parker, the adjudicator, said in a report that the only reason faith schools often achieved good results was because of "their practice of selection from church-going families".
But Lord Dearing, who made his 2001 recommendations on the back of a survey showing that there were 160 applications for every 100 places in C of E secondary schools, rejected the claims this week. He said the figures released by the church underlined the strength of parental support for a more "traditional" schooling.
"There are many excellent non-denominational schools, but in a society where traditional values are constantly under threat, parents feel a sense of security with church schools because they represent certain values that they stand for," he said.
The announcement by the church follows evidence of strong demand for schools for other faiths. Harrow council, north London, is proposing to open the first state-funded Hindu school in England and a survey earlier this month showed half of Muslim parents want their children to be educated in Islamic faith schools.