by Murray White in Bradford
IN A head-to-head confrontation with Education Secretary John Patten, a bishop this week accused the Government of creating a twotier education system, with schools increasingly divided into the haves and have-noes.
Bishop John Brewer of Lancaster launched an attack on Mr Patten, the leading Catholic cabinet minister, at the first National Catholic Education Conference. held in Bradford earlier this week. The bishop expressed concern that schools opting out of local authority control were gaining at the expense of those still funded by local councils.
In a heated exchange more reminiscent of the House of Commons, Mr Patten, who had just given a key address to more than 700 Catholic teachers and educationalists, retorted by calling the bishop "deluded" if he thought all schools could be equal.
Mr Patten said: "We have to face the fact that there are bad schools and good schools, even among Catholic schools. The best guarantee for quality is the national curriculum, regular inspection and parental choice."
But Bishop Brewer, who is Chairman of the Bishops' Theology Committee, replied that he was referring to an imbalance in resources provided by the Government rather than the quality of schools.
The exchange highlighted an apparent gap between Church and Government on the running and funding of schools, despite words of support for Catholic education by Mr Patten. "The Churches have had, and will continue to have, a key role," he said. in what was one of his first major addresses since becoming Education Secretary.
Mr Patten indicated that a change of funding methods to support capital grants would be included in his forthcoming White Paper and extolled the virtues of the Grant Maintained system, saying it would become the "natural organisation model" over the next few years. Only eight Catholic schools have so far opted-out.
He was also pressed on the 15 per cent contribution dioceses have to make to schools' capital costs. Earlier in the conference, Cardinal Basil Hume had suggested that the Church could be priced out of the market by soaring costs.
Fr Nicholas Jenkins, Menevia diocesan Director of Catechetics, asked Mr Patten if the Government could justify the 15 per cent the Church contributed, while other state schools were exempt.
The minister, clearly agitated by now, said: "If people want to set up something on a voluntary basis, it is right they should contribute something towards it," He added that the bishops had not approached him on the matter.
Several delegates expressed disappointment with Mr Patten's "confrontational" approach. Brian
Jones, headteacher at St John's, Bishop Auckland. Co Durham. said: "He seemed to suggest there is a big change coming now. Just what it will be, we are not sure. Education is big business now."
But others felt Mr Patten had already offered a solution to funding problems. Br Francis, headteacher at St Francis Xavier, Liverpool, which has opted out. said: "He did give an answer to the 15 per cent problem, and that is to go Grant Maintained."
In his own key speech, Cardinal Hume voiced concern about the financial demands of schools: "The burden of expenditure has become so onerous of late that many dioceses are simply unable to raise the money to pay their contribution."
He stressed that he had no Opposition to the principle of opting-out, but warned against a trend towards individualism where schools discount the wider community interest.
Conference round-up, page 3 Leader, page 4