TV evangelist and MP fall out with nuns who shunned academy rescue plan

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Unholy row as politician accuses Catholic order of lack of `Christian charity' for rejecting takeover bid for ailing school

A catholic order of nuns has come under fire for failing to support a struggling private school, despite an academy chain stepping in with a rescue plan.

The trustees of St Ursula's School in Bristol called in the administrators last week after the Sisters of Mercy rejected an offer from Oasis Community Learning - run by evangelist, TV broadcaster and campaigner Reverend Steve Chalke - to turn it into a state-funded academy.

The Oasis proposals will come before the school's governing body for consideration one last time next week.

The Sisters, who own the site but do not run the school, have said that they would not invest in the project unless it remained independent and Catholic.

Local MP Charlotte Leslie, who launched the academy bid in February, has written to the order begging them to reconsider, suggesting it would be "a perverse advertisement of Christian charity and mercy" if it rejected "this financially sensible (and) humanly compassionate offer".

The fact that the deal was not immediately embraced by the nuns has surprised local people as a handful of private schools have transformed their fortunes by becoming academies.

Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, the first to make the switch in September 2007, was recently awarded "outstanding" status by Ofsted.

Forty teachers will be left without jobs if the closure of St Ursula's goes ahead. Pupil numbers had been falling and the school was in financial difficulties.

Parents of children at the four-to-16 school would also be left with just a month to find places for their children at alternative schools.

Teresa Ireland, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which represents 11 staff at the school, said: "We are appalled at the way that staff have been treated. Those staff on holiday whom we have not managed to reach will have a horrible shock when they get home."

Reverend Chalke, chief executive of Oasis Community Learning, which already runs two academies in Bristol, said it would be "depressing" if the school is allowed to shut.

"The tragedy is these children left St Ursula's a couple of weeks ago, but there's been no mourning process. They won't see their classmates again. It's a terrible act of social vandalism."

Reverend Chalke added that a decision not to go ahead with the deal - which would see Oasis running the school as a private fee-charging concern for another year - would put more pressure on Bristol City Council to find more primary school places in the city.

Ms Leslie, Conservative MP for Bristol North West, said she was "surprised, shocked and bewildered" as to why the nuns had turned down the bid. "It is astounding that a Christian organisation is putting parents, staff and pupils through such heartache," she said.

Bristol City Council said in a statement that it was "deeply saddened" by the news, adding: "The council has been actively supporting recent efforts by Oasis Community Learning to step in and safeguard a future for the school."

A statement from the Sisters of Mercy denied the order was trying to force the closure of the school.

It added: "We are open to the use of the St Ursula's property as a non- denominational school but as of this moment, and despite all the recent efforts to guarantee its future, no one has come forward with sufficient funds to buy the property and ensure the long-term viability of a new school."

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