Ignorance wins the day

Felipe Fernández-Armesto fears for the future of a leading comprehensive

March 31, 2011

I have looked into the abyss - England’s School Admissions Code and other documents generated by the educational bureaucracy. Except when I was a schoolteacher, marking adolescent efforts at elementary self-expression in Latin, I have never come so near to weeping at a combination of illiteracy, ignorance and inanity.

My depressing excursion was prompted by my interest in the case of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School where I am a patron of the Vaughan Parents’ Action Group. Parent governors of this Catholic boys’ comprehensive in Holland Park, west London, have launched litigation (now awaiting a Court of Appeal decision) against the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols.

The governors and the clergy have a history of disputes, most of which have been resolved in a reasonably civilised way. Recently, however, two issues have proved intractable. First, the diocese sold part of the school’s site for commercial development. Where the proceeds should go is an unresolved question and the governors have never established to their own satisfaction what became of the money.

Second - and this is the matter that has ended up before the courts - the governors wanted to allocate oversubscribed places to children of families of demonstrable Catholic ardour, measured by participation in Christian life and devotion beyond mere attendance at mass.

The archbishop claimed that this infringed his sole right to be an arbiter of who is a Catholic. Obviously, his claim has no merit. Catholics vary in the intensity of their Catholic practice, and it is no infringement of the clergy’s prerogative for the school to prefer devout practitioners. The law allows practice as well as faith to be a criterion of admission to religious schools.

The diocesan education authorities, however, sought to pre-empt the issue by dispensing with the services of some of the old governors and substituting their own - including, with incredible chutzpah and glaring impropriety, the very official who was responsible for presenting the diocese’s case against the school. The surviving parent governors resorted to law to demand the cuckoo’s extrusion from their nest.

Cardinal Vaughan was, until the archbishop’s coup, an exemplary school with a stunning record of success. I do not measure that success only by the government’s usual crass criteria of exam results and university places, although by those standards Cardinal Vaughan was regularly among the top comprehensives in the country.

Rather, the glory of the school has long been the way it enhances and inspires pupils’ lives and sends relatively large numbers into caring professions, voluntary work and selfless vocations.

In a school where applicants regularly outnumber places by six to one, the admissions criteria were designed to open access to Catholic children - of devout families, for preference - from all over west London, rather than from the immediate, affluent neighbourhood of the school. The school scrupulously respected the law that demands preference for children in care and for those with disabilities. It achieved above-average recruitment from ethnic minorities.

The diocese, insisting on the hierarchy’s sole power to determine eligibility, referred Cardinal Vaughan to the Schools Adjudicator, who found that the school had, in principle, the right to exceed diocesan criteria. But the adjudicator took the opportunity to make proposals that would wreck the school.

No longer could Cardinal Vaughan, which has music among its specialities, award places to boys who qualified for free extracurricular music lessons, as this might be construed as discrimination in favour of attainment. No longer should the school continue its policy of granting half the places to boys in the middle-ability range of scholastic aptitude, and a quarter each to those in the top and lowest cohorts. The adjudicator deemed the system improper on the obviously ineluctable grounds that the school could only judge who was in these bands on the basis of its own applicants rather than the national averages.

Instead, he recommended random selection (which is the default position of those who have abandoned the search for a rational alternative) or the postcode lottery that would favour the rich residents of Holland Park and which generally condemns poor children to bad schools. A further effect would be to deprive pious Catholics of the chance of a place for their children at a school that honours their values. This pernicious form of religious discrimination is strictly against the law.

In some respects, I think the adjudicator misdirected himself, as he failed to respect his duty to conserve and promote the school’s distinctive character, and failed to observe the difference between the profession and practice of religion. Broadly, however, his priorities reflect the relevant regulations and legislation, which are crafted to make schools accessible rather than good.

Apart from dumbing all schools down to the same level, there is only one sure way to achieve equality of educational opportunity, and that is by making all schools as nearly equally free, rich and life-enhancing as the variety of nature allows. Obviously this requires more money than British governments are willing to spare.

But even more important - while our schools remain generally impoverished - is the need to respect the methods of teachers and governors like those of Cardinal Vaughan, instead of demoralising them, subverting them and subjecting them to the power of outsiders.

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