A Roman Catholic primary school in the heart of an Asian community in Lancashire looks set to become the first in the country to convert to an Islamic faith school.
Just a decade ago, Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Blackburn was a flourishing Catholic community, with 91 per cent of its pupil intake professing the faith. Now that number has dwindled to no more than 3 per cent.
As a result, the Diocese of Salford – which is responsible for the running of the school – has concluded it is no longer "appropriate" for the Catholic Church to remain in charge. Instead, its future is the subject of a consultation, with the local mosque a leading contender to take over the day-to-day running of the school.
The 197-pupil school is in the centre of Blackburn and its pupils are largely from ethnic minority groups, with Indians and Pakistanis in the majority. In all, around 97 per cent of its intake is Muslim. Nearby, there is already an established and successful Muslim secondary, the Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School, which caters for 383 pupils and is repeatedly listed in the top 10 non-selective state schools based on its exam performance. It has already expressed an interest in taking over Sacred Heart.
Whether this would mean running it as a Muslim faith school or in partnership with another institution has yet to be determined.
Hamid Patel, Tauheedul's headteacher, said: "We are the only outstanding [as rated by Ofsted] Muslim school and we are the only outstanding secondary school in the area.
"We're very keen on collaboration. We will consider both options [running it as a faith school or becoming a lead partner in the running of the school]."
Tauheedul has also taken the lead in attempting to turn around a neighbouring, mainly white secondary school, Blakewater College, which had the third worst exam results in the country before Tauheedul's intervention. GCSE results have improved significantly in the space of only a few months.
According to a report presented to Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council's executive, if Sacred Heart became a Muslim school it would "provide increased diversity... and offer a faith school that matches the population of the town".
Just exactly who will end up running the school will be decided by open competition, a mechanism put in place by the previous Labour government to give parents more of a say in the running of their children's schools. Council bosses believe that an attempt to run it as a community local authority school would be unsuccessful, given Education Secretary Michael Gove's backing for the creation of independent "free" schools run by parents, teachers, charities and religious groups. Sacred Heart School would seem to be ripe for such an intervention. The council has, however, insisted that the change will not cause disruption for the pupils and staff – even though it will have to formally close and reopen under a new guise.
Sacred Heart has not been run along traditional Catholic lines for some time. Until earlier this year it was in a state of constant flux, with four acting headteachers over a two-year period. A permanent head has now been appointed to run the school. The governing body has resigned and an interim board had to be set up by the council to look after its affairs.
Tenders for the new school are unlikely to be sought until the new year, at which point Tauheedul and others will finalise their bids.
Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, praised Sacred Heart in a report published earlier this summer as "a good school which has successfully negotiated a period of considerable change and instability".
Harry Devonport, director of universal, targeted and learning services at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said: "There will be no disruption for our children at this school. Our main focus is that pupils have access to quality education. We will issue letters to parents to explain the process."
Minority faith schools
1 Greek Orthodox