Bishop rejects plans for seven new joint-campus mixed-faith schools

PLANS to build seven mixed-faith, joint-campus schools were thrown into chaos yesterday, when the Roman Catholic Church withdrew its support for the scheme.

The Right Rev Joseph Devine, the Bishop of Motherwell, claimed that North Lanarkshire Council’s plans were "flawed" and ignored the Catholic Church’s wishes over how the campuses should be designed. He has now written to Jack McConnell, the First Minister, asking him to intervene personally. Mr McConnell has in the past praised joint-campus schools as a way of tackling sectarianism.

The row broke out in January, when the Church threatened to walk away from the 150 million project if it did not receive written guarantees of separate staff rooms, and visitor and pupil entrances. Last month, The Scotsman revealed that Church leaders were to meet council officials in a final attempt to iron out the differences, but Bishop Devine said yesterday that the plans did not "guarantee the satisfactory provision of Catholic education" for local pupils.

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He said: "It has now become clear that North Lanarkshire Council is not prepared to make the design changes which the diocese has sought.

"Accordingly, I have informed the council that it is pursuing a flawed policy in its determination to promote shared-campus provision on this basis in these communities."

In his letter to Mr McConnell, Bishop Devine calls on the First Minister to use his powers under the Education (Scotland) Act to intervene if he believes that a council’s actions could lead to "a significant deterioration" in the education provided to pupils.

A spokesman for the First Minister said Mr McConnell had received the letter and would reply after he returns from holiday.

The bishop’s stance was backed last night by Michael McGrath, the director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service.

He said: "I share the bishop’s fears that these proposals would lead to a significant deterioration in the quality of Catholic education and in the very distinctiveness of the formation which is offered in these schools."

A spokeswoman for the Executive said: "We would encourage both the council and the Church to continue their dialogue in a bid to reach an agreement on the best way forward for pupils, parents and the local community."

Despite the Church’s opposition, it is understood the council still intends to press ahead with the joint-campus plans.

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Jim McCabe, the leader of North Lanarkshire Council, said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Bishop Devine’s announcement.

He said: "Following my last meeting with Bishop Devine and his representatives, there were real signs of a positive outcome to our discussions.

"I now find myself bemused and disappointed. However if the bishop wishes to discuss this matter with me further, I will make myself available."

The introduction of mixed-faith campuses has provoked controversy in other parts of the country.

In Midlothian, the opening of Scotland’s first mixed-faith secondary school campus was marred by claims of violence between pupils. Education officials also came in for criticism for initially segregating pupils from St David's RC High School and Dalkeith High, who share different wings of the same building, as well as its sports facilities.