Sunday, 13 February 2011

Confusing apples and oranges at the Cardinal Vaughan School

We have friends coming around for munchy-time this afternoon, so I was pottering around the kitchen at 7am in time to hear Sunday on Radio 4. Among other matters this morning it reported on the ongoing controversy at the Cardinal Vaughan School. The basic story, as we know, is that the school has maintained a thorough Catholicity test for parents/children applying for places there, while the Diocese of Westminster is battling to reduce that test to a basic sacramental minimum. The controversy rumbles.

The effect of this change, according to the diocese, will be to open up the school potentially to all Catholic children in the area, not just those with mustard-keen parents. The suspicion from the diocesan point of view (nobody has said this, at least I don't think so!) is that the local middle classes have seen the opportunity to use the CVS as a free school for those lucky enough to be Catholic or sneaky enough to simulate sufficient devotion and commitment.

The effect of the change, according to the parents' group, will be to water down the Catholic ethos of the school and reduce its effectiveness in preparing their children for life as faithful Catholics. The suspicion from their point of view is that the diocese is dabbling in social engineering because the CESEW is stuffed with not-so-closet New Labourites who want a broad, socially sensitive Church, not an orthodox, prophetically exigent one. They also allege that the diocese has body-snatched several governor's posts, in a long-term campaign to dominate the board of governors and thus get the admission policy changed. This matter is currently the subject of a court case.

Well, this is one of those concrete situations where the issues are never as simple as we would like them to be. Still, the objections which I heard cited this morning from the diocese's perspective were pretty thin.

The first of these was that there are many Catholic parents who have lapsed today, and making Catholic schooling available for these children would be an excellent outreach initiative. The second objection seemed to be that the CVS's stringent selection measures would be very hard on, for example, refugees who cannot prove their sacramental bona fides. The third argument was that the CVS parents cannot dominate the school in this way because they are only temporary occupants of what is a diocesan school.

Before we consider these arguments in turn, it is worth pointing out that they all share in the same fundamentally wrong assumption if the Catholic Church runs an education service, parents should come to it, cap in hand and very grateful for what it manages to dole out to them. Er, no, actually. The parents themselves have the duty of educating their children as Catholics by virtue of their covenantal promises made to God on the day of their marriage. So, even Catholic schools stand in loco parentis. The parents are NOT, therefore, clients of the school; the Catholic school is, in a sense, the subcontractor of Catholic parents. But could not the diocese defend its position on the grounds that it is arguing for the rights of children whose parents cannot or will not act in their defence? No! Because that is a different function from standing in the place of parents who actually, really, actively want a Catholic education for their children.

This becomes all the clearer if we consider the three objections above. Should the Catholic school be a safety-net for children whose parents have lapsed? No! The school is only indirectly a tool for evangelisation; its primary function is building up the faith of those who are already faithful. That is not elitist, anymore than the fact parents feed their own children before feeding anyone else means that they are inegalitarian! If the diocese wishes to evangelise the lapsed, then let the diocese create its own opportunities for doing so, and let it not piggy-back on the efforts of faithful parents to educate their children in an atmosphere of fidelity and love.

As for the second objection, the same logic applies. The school can and should be involved in the corporal works of mercy by welcoming refugees. It is to be hoped that there are no bureaucratc hurdles in this process, such as unreasonable demands for paperwork that might have been blown sky-high back in Sudan. But those are hard cases. The school cannot decide its policy on exceptions! Systems do not fit all individuals. In any case, presumably if refugees could prove their commitment to the faith, what is the evidence to suggest they cannot obtain a place in the school? Again there is a confusion here between two different categories: the Catholic Church looking after displaced persons and the subcontracting of Catholic education to a diocese.

As for the third objection, we have already answered it. The building and services might belong to the diocese, but the educational role that the school assumes is entirely at the service of the parents who want to send their children there. The person who spoke in favour of the diocese was Professor Gerald Grace, a professor of education, so in a sense we cannot say his views are those of the diocese. Nevertheless, his argument is one in which the Catholic Church would absorb parental responsibilities into itself, like some pantomimic State.

If the Westminister diocese wants to set up a school for children whose parents are lapsed or whose family situations are difficult, that is fantastic! What it should not do is confuse that very worthy cause - a blend of the corporal and spiritual works of instructing the ignorant and clothing and feeding the naked - with its duty to provide a Catholic education service which properly corresponds to the wishes of parents utterly committed to raising their children in an atmosphere of Catholic fidelity and love.

Eek, I'd better get back to my roast!


JARay said...

Brilliantly put Ches!

Anonymous said...

At last. I'm so fed up of being labelled selfish, disloyal and disobedient by diocesan representatives, so it is refreshing for someone to stand up and realise that Vaughan parents are actually as concerned about other schools and families as they are about the Vaughan and their own children's education. I'm also fed up being labelled 'old-fashioned' or 'traditionalist' because I expect my children to attend Mass EVERY Sunday and absolutely discourage the practice (in my teenagers)of receiving Communion if Mass has been missed the week before, without Confession first being offered. These aren't old-fashioned ideas and the Vaughan just reinforces the importance of taking your Faith seriously. As we know, and much to the RCDoW's shame, there are many 'Catholic' schools in London that are Catholic only in so much as the sign at the front of the school suggests it. I have spoken to many a 'Catholic' parent in playgrounds over the years who feel that "'s not all about going to Mass though is it?". Well, no, but you are supposed to go every week (although, during the last admissions debacle, parents were told that more often than not was considered 'regular' attendance...i.e 27 times out of every 52...but if you can't sacrifice one hour on a Sunday... I've never been so blinkered to think that only Catholics are good. If our is being reduced to being a 'good' person and doing things if you can fit them in your oh, so busy life, that can't be right...can it?

Anonymous said...

Very well reasoned argument.

Cardinal Vaughan has always taken pupils from all walks of life right across London. It has above the national average of pupils with statements,taking free school meals and receiving Educational Maintenanace Allowance. The real difference is that they and their family practice their faith.

There is no real barrier to immigrants or refugees practicing their faith; the English Catholic Church today has been built by successive generations of immigrants; Irish, Italian, African, Asian, Latin American and most recently again the Polish community. The one thing they cherished on coming to these shores was their faith; they made sure they held on to this and passed it on to their children. Parishes across London are full of recent immigrants(mainly women) from the Phillipino,African and now again the Polish community, who support their church in many ways; many parises would not survive without these people of faith. Given their practice, these people would have no problems, and do have no problems, getting into Cardinal Vaughan School.

Surely you must be mistaken about the role of Archdiocese of Westminster in caring for refugees or recent immigrants to these shores. Fr Michael Johnson, Parish Priest at St Francis of Assisi in Notting Hill, close to Cardinal Vaughan School, and himself a newly appointed Governor forced by the Diocese on the CVMS governing body,has recently expelled the entire Eiritrean community in London from his church. The Eiritrean community in London called St Francis of Assisi their 'home' in London for the past 28 years. In making this move,Fr Johnson sought and obtained the aproval of the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols.

So much for the mission to help the poor and the unwanted in society.

Anonymous said...

Well done. A good explanation of the arguments. I found Bishop Stack's third argument particuarly thing. I have written to him to ask him to explain why he and the Director of CES Wstminster are more permanant than parents? It is fifteen years since my son began his secondary education at the Vaughan. I remain loyal and grateful.

pattif said...

Ches - Your analysis of the programme is excellent, particularly your demolition of Prof. Grace's argument that the School belongs to the Diocese, not to the parents. It is amazing that a world-renowned authority on Catholic education could appear not to be aware of the Church's teaching that parents are the "primary and principal educators" of their children.

However, the programme itself was misconceived, in that the present dispute is not actually about admissions. That battle was largely lost when the Diocese referred the School to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator in 2009.

The present dispute centres on the most recent appointments to the Governing Body. The Diocese argues that the law gives the Bishop an unfettered right to appoint whomever he chooses as a foundation governor. The Parent Governors contend that two of the eleven foundation governors must be parents of pupils on the School roll at the time of their appointment. The Diocese also appointed its own Director of Education as a foundation governor, and the Parent Governors believe that there is an inherent conflict of interest in this appointment, since, as an employee of the Diocese, he will be unable to carry out his fiduciary duty to act in the interests of the school to which he is appointed.

Parents are particularly concerned about the timing of this change to the composition of the Governing Body. The previous Head, Michael Gormally, retired last year for reasons of ill health, and the search is on for his successor. Parents believe that, since the Diocese is so keen that the Vaughan should be just like all its other schools, the governors will seek the candidate most likely to bring about that outcome. Parents believe that it would be better for everyone if the Diocese devoted its energies to making the rest of its schools more like tha Vaughan.

Anonymous said...

Everything in my instinct on this one is on the side of the what the parents and former school administration want; and as a governor of a Catholic school I would love to emulate the success of the Vaughan. I also have no time for the CES and again as a governor just do not see what the point of it is.

However, we do have a case here of people directly undermining the Bishop's authority, and this is where I start to struggle on this issue. I am crying out for Bishops to start exercising their authority . . . I applauded the actions of Bishop Olmsted in relation to the hospital in his diocese which had conducted an abortion and refused to agree with his interpretation of the tragedy and would not promise not to do the same in an identical situation again.

If I stand for the Bishop in one case and against the Bishop in another; then I do not really stand for respecting the authority of a Bishop, but rather just support a man when I agree with him and don't when I don't. Now that's fine for politics, but I don't believe it's the way our respect for the hierarchy of the Church is supposed to operate. If the school for reasons of evangelisation was mandating that 25% of pupils should ideally be Muslims, and the Bishop clamped down on this as being against the norms for admissions set out for the diocese, I imagine we would be applauding his actions.

For me it is one of those tricky situations where a particular set of facts causes me to wish to go against a principle that I hold. If I go against the principle then I get into the murky world of a pragmatist philosophy. If on the other hand I go with my principle then I've gone against what I believe in the particular circumstance to be right.

Any thoughts on this dilemma anyone?

Either way, the way this issue is playing out brings scandal upon the Church which is deeply unfortunate.

In Domino,


pattif said...

Toby -

The Church teaches that there are issues concerning faith and morals (e.g. Catholic hospitals permitting abortions) where obedience to the bishop is required, and matters of prudential judgment, on which a different opinion from that of the bishop may be legitimately held. Catholic social teaching (including education policy) falls into the latter category.

Moreover, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity (according to which decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, nearest those to be affected by them) suggests that the imposition of a one-size-fit-all diocese-wide admissions policy, usurping the legal right of the governing body of a voluntary aided school to act as its own admissions authority, is wrong.

Grave scandal has been caused to faithful Catholic parents, who thought they could rely on their bishops to support their role as "primary and principal educators" of their children.

davidforster said...

I was surprised to hear Professor Grace say, without qualification, that the diocese "owns" the school. As I understand it, the school is "in trust" with the diocese as "trustees". This isn't the same as absolute ownership - where you can do what you like with something, but means acting in accordance with the deed of trust, and the wish of the donors.

The Cardinal Vaughan School was not built with money donated from the private resources of bishops or diocesan officials. It was opened on the donations of Catholic laypeople who wanted a centre of excellence to commemorate the life of the late Cardinal. It operated as a private school for its first 30 years. To argue, has been implied by a certain Director of Education , that such schools were founded by the diocese to implement the latest ideological whim of officials, is a distortion of the facts.

Ttony said...

What an excellent axe through the thicket of cant!

Well done, our kid!

St John said...


You rightly say that "The parents themselves have the duty of educating their children as Catholics by virtue of their covenantal promises made to God on the day of their marriage". However, this does not mean that the parents get to call the shots as to how the school is run. When a parent sends a child to a school, which has held itself out as offering a certain type of education and formation that the parent has deemed suitable for his/her child, the parent has chosen to avail of what the school offers. If the parent does not like that, the school would be entitled to say "This is the way we do it here - if you don't like it you can go to another school." (Incidentally, this is the means by which many independent schools maintain their high standards in the face of outside interference or parental pressure.) Although in the education of children the school is indeed standing in loco parentis - at the choice, and with the consent, of the parent - the relationship of the parents with the school is something akin to partnership. Partnership does not mean that the parents can dictate (for their own benefit) the composition of the school’s governing board, or its admissions policy.

The primary duty of the archdiocese, and of Archbishop Nichols in particular, is not the education of children but the saving of souls. This means all the souls in the area of the diocese - not just those of children with devout parents but also those of baptised children who (through no fault of their own) have lapsed parents. Indeed, it also includes the souls of those lapsed parents. Therefore it is legitimate for the archdiocese to factor all these elements into the equation when taking decisions about the admissions policy and governance of a school.

Further, there is no reason why admitting the Catholic children of lapsed parents should require the Cardinal Vaughan School to drop the high standards which it demands of its pupils, whether in terms of their reverence at Mass, their knowledge of their Faith, their academic performance or their sporting and musical prowess.

Ches said...

St John, of course when the parents buy into a school, then they must accept what the school does. The problem, however, is precisely that the diocese is trying to shift the goalposts by sidelining parental opinion. That is not a partnership by any stretch of the imagination.

As to your second argument, I utterly disagree. The school is not primarily an instrument of the evangelisation of the unfaithful but a service rendered to Catholic parents on whom falls directly the responsibility to educate their children as Catholics. In every other way, let Archbishop Nichols evangelise everyone, including the active gays whose participation in Mass at Soho he apparently turns a blind eye to.

As to maintaining high standards, I, as a former school teacher, can assure you that the people who make the biggest difference to a school are the parents. Therefore, it is idealistic to imagine CVS would remain as effective a nursery of the faith in the circumstances you outline.

Ches said...

Let me add: it's not the gays' participation in Mass which is a problem, but their free communication in the sacraments whilst acclaiming their gay lifestyle to witnesses (see Daphne McLeod's letter to Faith Magazine this month).

Enthusiastica said...

You infer that,although an admirable impulse, the consequence of the diocesan anxiety to reach out to baptised children of lapsed parents, in preference to those of practicing parents, is that such children will take precedence over baptised children from committed, practicing families.
This implies that we may see the day when it is in the best interest of committed families to stay away from church, so as to qualify as lapsed Catholic, in order to get into the Vaughan.
I remember a comment from our bishop, made to me, where he stated that Catholic education was not so much for the likes of us practicing Catholics, as for those who could benefit from being brought into the fold.
It makes me wonder if he could possibly be aware of the struggle involved for a Catholic child to retain the practice of their faith in the world we live in today. Even children of practicing families need every support they can get to cling on to the rock.
Is the church really suggesting we should feed our children to the wolves?

Anonymous said...

@ davidforster you say...

"I was surprised to hear Professor Grace say, without qualification, that the diocese "owns" the school. As I understand it, the school is "in trust" with the diocese as "trustees". This isn't the same as absolute ownership - where you can do what you like with something, but means acting in accordance with the deed of trust, and the wish of the donors."

I think you are confusing your trust law here. The trustees do not need to heed the wish of the donors. The trustees instead need to ensure they follow the objects of the trust deed. Subtely different, but different all the same. Once the donated funds have entered the trust, the donor loses all power to dictate how those funds are spent.

@Ches & @Pattif... I agree with you that the parents are the "primary and principal educators of their children", but that means that they are responsible themselves for bringing up their children in the way of the Catholic faith - both in what they tell their children and in the example they set in living their own lives.

The church's role is to support parents in this mission, and the provision of Catholic education (and schools) is the church's means of support. Parents should use this support to supplement, not to replace, their own responsibility to their children. It is therefore right that the bishops, as the local head of the church, should decide how that provision is provided.

Whilst the input of parents in to this provision is important, it is not the only factor for the church to consider. It is therefore right that the parent voice is heard, but it is a minority voice, the majority being the church voice. Hence the majority on governing bodies of the foundation governors - those persons appointed by the church.

As a footnote... If parents wish to run their own school - then provision has been made for them to do so - they are known as Free Schools.


monica said...

In response to Anonymous 18.2.11 i have copied from the Action group website the following:
"No one disputes the right of the Bishop to appoint the majority of governors
in a Catholic school; this is a straw man argument. It is the contention of
the Parent Governors, supported by VPAG, that he is bound to do so in
accordance with the 2007 Statutory Instrument applicable to all governing
body appointments, not only those in Catholic schools. The Parent
Governors contend that he has not done so; the Bishop argues that he has.
This is a matter for the Appeal Court to decide."

Anonymous said...

We are practising Catholics and our children (now aged 30 and 33) went to a Catholic comprehensive secondary school here on the south coast.

I knew several parents who went to church solely to get their children into the school, which had a good academic reputation. Once there, it became clear that not many of the children were not really from homes where the faith was practised. Bizarrely, my daughter had one girl in her class who openly proclaimed that both she and her parents were satanists! Very few children actuslly attended mass.

Our son had given up his faith by the time he left school. Our daughter lapsed for a little while, but thank God she is now practising again. She had a bad time at school as a result of verbal bullying though; she became anorexic for a time and is still suffering an appalling lack of self confidence as a result.

I know so many other good Catholic families where the children have lapsed. As a result of our own experiences, I believe strongly that children of practising Catholics should be allowed to go to a school which checks thoroughly that the family faith is sincere and genuine. If that is not possible, then we are going to end up with few Cathilics at all in years to come: it is as simple as that.