By Citra Sidhu
ARCHBISHOP Vincent Nichols of Birmingham has given his full hacking to plans to close a joint Catholic and Anglican upper school in Oxford and replace it with an exclusively Catholic secondary school.
The archbishop said that local authority changes in educational provision in Oxford meant many Catholics felt the time had come to reestablish their own secondary school.
"The loss of Catholic secondary schools has been keenly felt, not only in terms of the educational opportunities they offer, but also as focal points of the Catholic community," he said in a statement last week.
"The Catholic faith provides the foundations for a truly principled and tolerant way of life, and my first duty is to do all that I can to create opportunities for Catholics to be formed and grow in this faith."
St Augustine's was set up in the 1980s with the help of Oxford City Council in response to a decline in numbers at the Catholic secondary, St Edmund Campion and the Anglican school of Cowley St John.
However, Catholics in South Oxfordshire have since campaigned for their own school on the grounds that St Augustine's did not provide a Catholic education for their children.
At present, 41 per cent at St Augustine's is Catholic, while 34 per cent are Anglican. A vast majority of the remaining 25 per cent are nonChristian.
In the original agreement the proportion of Catholics to Anglican was to be three to one. But Fr Marcus Stock, executive secretary to the Birmingham archdiocesan schools commission, said: "It was clearly never popular among the Catholic community. Even now they just don't see it as a Catholic school."
The move to re-establish a Catholic secondary came after a decision by the council to revert from a tluee-tier system (primary, middle, secondary) in the city to the two-tier system (primary, secondary) outside the city.
The diocese believed that this had partly deterred children from Catholic families who lived outside the city's boundaries. After an extensive diocesan survey, the archdiocese is confident it will now be able to attract such children and others to a seven-form entry school.
Support for a Catholic secondary is so strong that eight years ago a group of Catholic parents tried to found a denominational school. They received overwhelming support for their venture throughout the deaneries of South Oxfordshire and found that the majority of parents with children attending the Catholic primary at Abingdon were happy to travel a significant distance to attend a Catholic secondary. The group has now put its plans on hold to give the archdiocese its full support.
But opposition remains strong among Anglicans, staff and other non-Catholics at the school, who believe there would not be enough Catholic children to sustain a Catholic school —and that the move was "unecumenical".
Mrs Elisabeth Gilpin, headteacher of St Augustine's said: "We at the school are very clear about our remit. Our first job is to do everything a normal Catholic school would do. There is a creative mix in a joint school with the Catholic vision of catechesis, growth and evangelisation and the Anglican vision of serving the local community. For a mixed community like ours a joint school is the best way forward."
Canon George Farrell, episcopal vicar for Oxfordshire and a governor at St Augustine's, said: "The Catholic children at St Augustine's have chosen the path of a Catholic education. Generally the Anglican children at the school have not been to an Anglican middle school or first school.
"They promote a 'local community' ethos while a Catholic school has a distinct Catholic tradition. There is a tremendous difference in approach."
Canon Tony Williamson, the director of the Anglican diocesan department of education in Oxford said that the results of the diocesan survey showed that there would be fewer than 100 children in each year.
He said: "Elements are changing nationally and the Catholic Church cannot require parents to send their children to an exclusively Catholic school as before," But Fr Stock said: "Pupils do transfer from the Catholic primaries to our Catholic middle, but the same numbers do not go on to St Augustine's. We have to ask ourselves why not."
He insisted that this was not an ecumenical issue: "It is simply a joint school and the flag of ecumenical convenience has been hoisted. This has never been a negative critical reaction to the Church of England or the school.
Fr Stock noted that in initial discussions with Anglican officials there were no criticisms of the archdiocese's plans.
He said: "It was fine until last autumn when the St Augustine's support group sprung up. That reaction was due to political pressure and lobbying rather than policy."