KENNETH Baker, the secretary of state for education, faced by a bipartisan assault in the Commons this week on his "radical shake-up of schools", seems poised to yield to some Catholic fears, but not on his "opting out" proposals.
Identical amendments, drafted in association with the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, have been tabled at the Education bill's report stage by Catholic MPs Sir Hugh Rossi (Conservative Hornsey and Wood Green) and Frank Cook (Labour Stockton North).
Mr Baker has let it be known that he will not oppose amendments designed to give religious education a place on the core curriculum, a demand voiced to him only last week at a meeting with the Anglican Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard.
On the question of giving church schools greater control over their intakes, Mr Baker's willingness to compromise is hoped for by Catholic leaders, but he has yet to give a clear signal. The bishops (Catholic Herald, February 19) have expressed their fears that the levels set for intakes will force Catholic schools to accommodate more nonCatholic pupils than they do currently, and hence weaken the
Catholic character of the schools. The amendments, tabled in the Commons, will seek to give the Church greater control in this area.
The third area of concern is the provision to allow schools to "opt out" of local authority control in favour of direct funding by the Secretary of State. Catholic leaders fear that if a sufficiently large group of parents lobby for such a change, church schools will be taken out of the control of their trustees, the Catholic bishops.
Mr Baker has told church leaders privately that he understands their worries, but Sir Hugh Rossi said this week that he felt the Government was unlikely to yield on this particular issue.
Nicholas Coote, Assistant General Secretary of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, said that Mr Baker had made it clear he was opposed to allowing the bishops a veto over such "opting out" changes. However, Mr Coote emphasised that the bishops were not necessarily demanding a veto as such, but rather some formula that would ensure that the Secretary of State's reforms would not be used by parents as a pretext to avoid diocesan reorganisation of schools. The bishops were not opposed per se to "opting out", Mr Coote said.