The Archbishop of Southwark today steps into the row over Catholic education in Richmond with his first public show of support for a new faith school.

The Most Rev Peter Smith told the Richmond and Twickenham Times the borough had a “very real need” for a Catholic secondary school and urged parents “not to give up hope”.

His backing will come as a boost to the 1,105 churchgoers who signed a petition calling for Richmond Council to give one of two new schools, needed by 2015, to the Catholic Church.

However, the authority has faced fierce criticism from the South West London Humanists group, which claimed the plans contradicted its own policies on diversity.

The archbishop, who has responsibility for the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, covering all London boroughs south of the Thames, said: “I fully support the desire and aspirations of parents in Richmond for a Catholic secondary school.

“I understand that this is a matter which has been the subject of plans and wishes over a number of years, and that the local authority is keen to have, and is supportive of, such a project.

“There are two particular obstacles, namely the lack of a suitable site and how the project could be financed.”

He said the Archdiocese of Southwark and Archdiocese of Westminster would “do our best” to overcome the problems, but acknowledged that Government funding cuts could stifle the plans.

He added: “I understand that both the Diocesan Commissions for Southwark and Westminster are continuing to pursue this matter, and obviously I am encouraging them to do so.

“It is quite a task, but I do urge all interested parties not to give up hope. We will do our best and I do appreciate that there is a very real need for such a school in the borough.”

Richmond is currently one of two boroughs in London without a Catholic secondary school.

However, South West London Humanists and the Accord group, which includes a coalition of Muslim, Hindu and Christian organisations, said the new schools should be inclusive and not segregate children based on their religion.

Jeremy Rodell, chairman of the South West London Humanists, said: “This is not anti-Catholic, we are saying the proposal is unfair and discriminative for taxpayers, including the 90 per cent who are not Catholic.

“To have to fund a school which is socially divisive against most people in the area and provides privileges to a small minority, that just seems completely wrong.”

In a letter published in today’s Richmond and Twickenham Times, Lord True, leader of Richmond Council, writes of the need for a Catholic secondary school but says the church must take the lead.