The Vaughan Controversy: What's the Story?

John Foley FAITH Magazine September – October 2011

John Foley lives in Brent and works in insurance. This article first appeared in the Magdala magazine of St. Mary Magdalen's parish, Willesden Green.


A good education is viewed by many as the best start in life. To that end, competition for places at good schools has always been intense. Ofsted recently judged 73\% of Catholic secondary schools to be outstanding or good compared to 60\% of Schools nationally. Understandably parents are likely to want to enrol their children in successful schools.

The Comprehensive System

In the 1970s the Labour Education Secretary, Shirley Williams, dispensed with Grammar and Secondary Schools and introduced the Comprehensive School System. Under Comprehensive Education there would be no division as all pupils would attend similar schools and receive a similar education. Critics described it as social engineering reducing the overall standards of schools down to the lowest common denominator. In practice Schools located within affluent areas prospered.

At the time of the Comprehensive School change one of the leading schools was Willesden Grammar School, in this writer's borough of Brent. I had the opportunity a few years ago to peruse a school publication produced by senior members of the school. The publication was impressive in its content and contained a list of former pupils who had been successful across a range of professions. After the introduction of Comprehensive Education Willesden Grammar School became Willesden High School and the education attainment at the school decreased over time.

Today the provision of quality state education in Brent is inconsistent. Unless parents have sufficient means to have their children educated at private schools they often seek to have their children educated outside the Borough.

Yet despite the upheaval in the education system from the 1960s onwards some schools have managed to maintain high academic levels of excellence. One such school is the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington. The school is heavily oversubscribed with many Brent parents trying their luck, usually unsuccessfully, with applications there. As a church supported school the governors, with Diocesan support, provide 10\% of the school's capital fund. The diocese exerts influence over the school through appointing the majority Foundation Governors.

What is Catholicity?

A key element of Cardinal Manning's vision was that Catholic Schools must be allowed sufficient autonomy to integrate the catholic faith into every aspect of school life. A Catholic ethos was not something to be confined to RE lessons but a pervasive set of values that find expression throughout the school day.

Admission requirements at Catholic Schools, normally stipulate the submission of evidence that the applicant and their parents are practising Catholics. The requirement is satisfied by production from the local Parish Priest of the appropriate certificate.

The Vaughan School has a tradition of making a more thorough discernment concerning the catholicity and suitability of applicants to their particular educational community. Following diocesan and government disapproval of their interviewing system they introduced a ranking system based on significant involvement in parish groups. This was viewed by the diocese as discriminating against practising families less able and inclined to get involved in group activities, perhaps because of other commitments or lack of appropriate skills. The diocesan commission pointed out that the Church's self-understanding of "practising Catholic" basically involves only Sunday Mass and Holy Day of Obligation attendance.

Yet the Vaughan Chairman of Governors pointed out that the diocesan official guidance notes undermine even this criterion of weekly Mass attendance. Perhaps as a result, this requirement is in reality rarely clearly applied, let alone enforced, by secondary schools in their admissions processes. More recently, the Vaughan Parents Action Group (VPAG) argued that "practising Catholic" also involves following the Precepts of the Church, such as bringing one's child for First Communion. This sub-committee of the Parents Association has a growing list of prominent patrons including Lord Alton.

The education commission of the Diocese of Westminster formally objected to the new "super-Catholic" requirements and reported the school to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, claiming that the school did not recognise the authority of its Diocesan Bishop in determining who is and is not a practising Catholic. That is to say that as well as being contrary to the Church's own definition of what constitutes a practising Catholic its points ranking system was contrary to the Admissions Code. The complaint was upheld by the Adjudicator. As the parties were unable to resolve their respective differences four of the school's Foundation Governors were removed by the diocese. Their replacements included the VPAG's nemesis, the diocesan Head of Education, and did not include any parent of acurrent pupil, against the diocese's own guidance. Matters rapidly deteriorated thereafter with the elected (i.e. non-Foundation) parent governors, supported by the VPAG, seeking a Judicial Review through the Courts, and now, after that having been dismissed, going to the Supreme Court. The ostensible purpose seems to be to get two current parents appointed as Foundation governors, something which the diocese say they have offered in private negotiations.

The Importance of True Practice

Some have found it strange that a school which is successful, not least in following its mandate to carry out parental wishes, is not being allowed to continue along its pre-determined path. The charge seems to be that the Vaughan is not Catholic enough in its adherence to equality of opportunity whilst it uses the minutiae of Canon Law concerning the meaning of "practising" to claim a deep catholicity. The position of the Diocese at Westminster appears to be based on the fear that a State School is becoming elitist and restricting its intake of pupils to a narrow middle class range. Some VPAG supporters have pointed out that as the number of truly practising Christians decreases the influence of non-Christians increases. Moreover well educated Vaughan pupils make it into professions andsome into politics, thereby having an influence on tomorrow's policy makers.

The Bishop of Oxford who is in charge of the Church of England's Educational Policy recently indicated that he had no objection if only 10\% of applicants to Church of England Schools were practising Protestants. The Catholic Church in this country has indicated that they do not propose to adopt such a strategy. For religious schools were created, ultimately, by parents, to provide an education encompassing the faith of that religion.

The Academy Route

The present Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has urged Catholic Schools to become Academies, which are self-governing. In the case of Cardinal Vaughan the attraction is that it will allow the school to become more self-governing, gain extra funding and be funded entirely by the State. The Church would no longer pay 10\% of its capital cost as it does under the voluntary aided system.

The one fly in the ointment is that the Academy reforms look like requiring the permission of the Local Bishop, who after all determines the applicability of the label "Catholic" to a school. Given the animosity presently existing between the school and the Westminster Diocese this permission may be unlikely to be forthcoming.

Yet, given the excellence of Cardinal Vaughan School, perhaps it might be preferable if a twin school could be set up in a Borough such as Brent, improving education in a deprived area. This could involve monies saved from the capital funding programme of Catholic schools which have become Academies. This way, diocesan resources could be used in a more transparently constructive way.

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