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Debate: Should popular schools give preference to pupils who are more active in the Church?

Or should they be open to all baptised Catholics?

By on Friday, 4 February 2011

Pupils wait to see the Pope at St Mary's, Twickenham, in September (Photo: PA)

Pupils wait to see the Pope at St Mary's, Twickenham, in September (Photo: PA)

The bitter and protracted row between the Diocese of Westminster and Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School started two years ago as a disagreement over admissions.

In January 2009, the diocese told the school – which, as the top Catholic comprehensive in the country, is massively over-subscribed – that it could only give preference to pupils on two grounds: 1) baptism 2) regular Mass-going. The school, therefore, could no longer select pupils on the basis of parish involvement – giving preference, say, to altar servers, or children who sang in the church choir.

The diocese insisted that the school was not allowed to make judgments about “who is a better Catholic”, and that it should be open to all Catholics. The school, meanwhile, protested that a watered down admissions code would wreck its strong Catholic character and lead it to becoming a school only for wealthy families who could afford to live in the area.

So, should schools be allowed to give preference to more devout families? Or should they be open to all baptised Catholics, whether they are committed to their faith or lapsed?

  • Anonymous



  • Hasels

    I am currently in this situation at the moment. My 4 year old starts school in September, and I am involved in the catechises of new Catholics. However, there appears to be a large number of siblings due for admission this year, and about half of those families will not attend mass. I do feel that it punishes other families that allow God to have an active role in their lives

  • Gaudium et Spes

    Ummm of course schools should be able to select. It’s a no-brainer really. CVMS already selects. It is heavily oversubscribed and therefore must look at new ways of selecting to ensure that pupils and parents are dedicated catholics. Of course it needs to ensure that parents are aware of their admissions policy.

  • Cathal

    Devout families? So who exactly will decide what counts as devout? And who has the right to say that someone is more devout than another? Perhaps all the devout people could cross a line and throw stones at the less devout…

    In my mind any baptised Catholic has a right to attend a Catholic school, regardless of their own failings or indeed the failings of their parents.

    I’ve only seen a small amount of what is going on at Cardinal Vaughan, but from what I’ve seen, I’m fully behind the decision of the diocese.

  • keeping the faith

    Interesting post on this blog about this issue – thinks the diocese an +Nichols are right on this one

  • keeping the faith
  • Gaudium et Spes

    Many, many people think that this school and other religious or otherwise selective schools are by their very nature wrong-headed. That’s a fair point, there is an argument for the selection process to be exactly the same in all majority state-funded schools across the country. Some say that admissions should be on distance from the school combined with fair banding. I don’t agree. I think that catholic schools have a special place in our country (as do other religious schools) and therefore they have to decide on who to let in, especially important as they are over-subscribed. The admissions policy is designed to protect the catholic ethos of this school. Don’t you think that it is worth protecting? I also think that the diocese are guilty of planting ‘yes’ men on the board of governors. This school have got it right, the diocese are wrong.
    Btw if you think the school are rigging the ‘type’ of pupil they admit (i.e. trying to get in middle class, high achievers) you might be interested to note that they have an above average number of statemented pupils and a higher percentage of pupils of free school meals compared to other Catholic schools.

  • Gaudium et Spes

    The school has the right to say who is more devout. Who else? (Oh yes the diocese, except they seem too frightened to say yes there are more devout catholics than others.) The school is oversubscribed as are most catholic schools, what would you do to decide who gets in?

  • Jackie Parkes

    Well I don’t know this particular case but I think it unfair on the Catholic child if his or her parents don’t practice the faith as “perefectly” as some who tick all the right boxes!

  • Cathal

    With all due respect I feel that you are missing the point. There is no test to say child x is more devout than child y. Similarly, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the gospels does not dictate that child z is any more devout than child a. A child’s “devoutness” certainly can not be measured by a parent cleaning a church or flower arranging etc… A test of devoutness, this unmeasurable factor, will only ever be subjective and therefore always open to bias and will ultimately be unfair.

    The diocese in the Cardinal Vaughan issue sound as though they understand this concept – they are not trying to judge who is more devout – they are asking the simple, objective question of “is the child catholic?” If the answer is yes, then that child has a right to attend a catholic school.

    All other measures beyond that come down to practicality and eventually locality. If a school is oversubscribed by catholic pupils, then surely it makes sense to allow those who live nearer the school to attend. This will upset people, and will bring up cries of ‘foul play’ and ‘postcode lottery’ – but without subjecting children to unfair and subjective selection criteria then there is no other way.

  • Gaudium et Spes

    I appreciate the point, and it may seem dictatorial to add in additional criteria. The probelm is, there is no right to attend a catholic school at all, certainly no right to attend this one as they are oversubscribed 6 to 1. I have a friend who is unable to get her daughter into her local catholic primary school at the moment and she is a regular church goer, the school is heavily oversubscribed. She unfortunately has no right to ensure that her daughter attends a catholic school.
    I suppose the school (CVMS) could draw lots but I prefer that they add an extra criteria as that also helps to maintain the catholic nature of the school. If they decided on postcode then I believe it would be more unfair and a postcode lottery. Lots of local middle class people will simply baptise their children and may not at all be practising catholics but be able to get their children into the school which I think is more unfair in the end. Well I suppose it is down to priority, and I think they should prioritise actively practising catholic families. This will of course be subjective but I think that is the best solution. It is a logical next step following the selection based on baptism. Or maybe we need more catholic schools!

  • Cathal

    And therein lies the problem. The perceived ‘unfairness’ when someone you know (parent y), who by all accounts is a pillar of the community, bends over backwards for their local catholic church and devotes their time and energies in to both their faith and the faith of others but cannot find a place in a catholic school for their children. The temptation is to say that parent y’s child is deserving of the place at the school, and therefore more deserving than someone else’s child. On the other hand, it could also be said that parent y’s child will be fine regardless of school they attend and the actions of parent y will mean that the child gets a good catholic upbringing anyway. Therefore a child whose parents are ‘less’ active would need the influence of a catholic school more, and in the eyes of the church should be more deserving.

    Both views are unfair, and I revert to banging my drum repeatedly(!) – the only criteria can be “are you catholic” – so therefore we shall have to disagree.

    I do agree however that more catholic schools are required. If only all catholic schools in the UK were oversubscribed 6 to 1, that would be a problem I think all catholics would enjoy. Perhaps we should all pray for that!

  • Gaudium et Spes

    Well we won’t agree on the process. We really do need more catholic schools in some parts of this country. I am praying for that!

  • FrDarryl

    Demand exceeds supply. The school wants to reward piety versus proximity, and it’s their ‘product’ that’s such a highly sought commodity. So, it’s a case of subsidiarity and spirituality jointly heeding ‘A Call to a Deeper Social Engagement’:

    Let the so-called liberals in Westminster practise what they preach, I say!

  • guest

    They should be open to all Catholic families, of course. Who is to say a child who serves the altar is more devout than one who doesn’t – what nonsense; this is how you build a society built on hypocisy- as long as you appear to be doing the right things you’ll be favoured.

  • Grandad

    Actions speak louder than words!! Those families who try to be genuine active in the family parish should be treated respectfully. Do you include wayward family members who don’t want to associated with you in your will? Food for thought……

  • Anonymous

    Doesn’t “regular Mass-going” cover it anyway?

  • Anonymous

    The problem starts with oversubscription. Unless there are more applicants than places available, there is no need for a requirement that the child be Catholic. At another Catholic secondary school in the same local authority as the Vaughan, some 50% of pupils are non-Catholic, a sizeable proportion of these are not Christian, and there are still places available in the First Form (Year 7).

    When the Diocese objected to the Vaughan’s use of “involvement” criteria, its governors asked for help to devise acceptable criteria that would preserve the School’s pan-London character; the Diocese responded that the only acceptable criteria were geographic, based on the applicants’ place of residence. The School could adopt “as the crow flies” or some similar tie-breaker, or it could use deanery quotas, but no criteria relating to involvement in the life of the Church could be used. The School carried out a public consultation on geographic criteria, but the response was so overwhelmingly in favour of the former criteria that the School reverted to these.

    Use of “involvement” criteria at Cardinal Vaughan was never intended to separate the “more devout” from the “less devout”; no criteria could do that. The Governing Body (in law, the admissions authority for a voluntary aided school) believed that it was fairer to all applicants to use criteria that most Catholics were capable of meeting, rather than criteria based on place of residence, which, in many cases, applicants could do nothing about. The Diocese claims that criteria based on place of residence are ”fairer” to the poor; ironically, the people who can do least to move nearer a good school or away from a bad one are the people who live in social housing.

    That geographic criteria tend to favour richer families and decrease social inclusion is argued here:

    Parents continue to ask the Archbishop and the Diocesan Education Service why it is so opposed to criteria that most Catholics should want to meet, regardless of school admissions, but they continue to receive no response.

  • Ben Trovato

    The underlying problem is that parents have lost faith in the Catholic Education Service and other advisors to the bishops, and suspect that they have an agenda of watering down the Catholic ethos of the CVS. Why have they lost faith? Because so many Catholic schools are lamentable (but praised as wonderful by the CES) and the CES has betrayed them repeatedly (eg re Connexions, Sex Education etc) and so on.

    It isn’t that parents only want ‘good’ Catholics at the school; but they recognise that allowing parents rich enough to move nearby to jump the queue by going through a ‘baptism of desire (for a good education)’ they will end up with the CVS like so many other schools… Hard to find the right criteria to mitigate that risk, but geographic proximity is certainly not it.

  • Anonymous

    The Vaughan’s admissions arrangements have resulted in a sense of empowerment for parents. You don’t have to be clever to get into the Vaughan. You don’t have to be rich, or live in the right street. All you have to do is make a bit of an effort to give up some time a month in a way that helps others and the community. It is the Big Society in action – or the Big Society as it SHOULD be if the Government had thought it through. And whether sweeping the church floor or chairing the church finance committee, all parents’ contributions are valued equally. Instead of trying to smash this system the Diocese should be looking for ways of extending its spirit across all their schools. Instead of trying to kill off the Vaughan’s special character the Diocese should be inviting its senior staff to mentor their less successful schools.

  • Caroline

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In fact, why not let it serve as a model for other schools of a lesser caliber?

  • Anonymous

    Exactly. The Diocese (and the CES) defend criteria related to where the applicant lives in relation to the school on the grounds that this is “fairer” to poor people, immigrants and ethnic minorities. Ironically, the evidence demonstrates that geographic criteria favour applicants with the economic ability to move into the neighbourhood of the school of their choice. Since its foundation, nearly 100 years ago, as a national memorial to Cardinal Vaughan, CVMS has always offered places to applicants from all parts of London, including those who live in areas served by no Catholic school. The Diocese claims that it is “not fair” that parents should be able to express a preference for CVMS over their nearest Catholic school. The question is, “not fair” to whom?

  • annie

    If a school is oversubscribed it is far fairer to give priority to those who are most actively involved in church life. Paul Barber, rather condescendingly, call these people “Super Catholics” in a Tablet article.So called “Super Catholics” are the backbone of our parishes-( they even pay your salary Mr Barber!) and they come from all walks of life and all races, they are actually just ordinary Catholics. The Diocese of Westminster prefers to use geographic criteria for admissions which has resulted in very devout families who do not live in the “right” area being unable to get a place for their child in a Catholic school. This has led to the dilution of Catholic ethos in Catholic schools as places are filled up with people who live nearby but are not supportive of the ethos.I teach in a Catholic school in the Westminster diocese and many Catholic schools are now indistinguishable from any other state school school. The excceptions to this are the Vaughan and the Oratory .Which begs the question – why has Paul Barber appointed himself to the governing body of one of the most successful Catholic state schools in the country- is he looking for tips on how to improve his other schools?

  • bernadette

    Cathal- many people consider geographic admissions critera far, far more unfair than that of involvement in church activity. After all poorer people do not have the same choices over where they live. You therefore end up with “good” schools in middle class areas and “sink” schools in disadvantaged areas. Why do you think social mobility is in such decline? Have you visited many schools lately ?
    Of course the criteria of involvement in church life is much fairer because it allows all- regardless of wealth,social class, intellect, or race- to be considered fairly.

  • Anonymous

    Jackie – check my blog to see the grim details.

  • Jonathan

    Please will the Bishops support parents who follow the Church’s teaching on contraception by prioritising places at Catholic schools for children from large families.
    Selection by regular Mass-going is important for retaining a genuine Catholic character. Selection by small acts of visible service to the church is not a good idea. It encourages parents to behave like the pharisees and to do their good works in the open so that they can be deemed worthy by their peers. This is exactly the opposite of what Our Lord taught us.

  • Anonymous

    It is, of course, not unheard of for people to perform “small acts of visible service to the church” in order to obtain a place at a desired school for their children. This is not a perfect reason, but the “small acts of visible service to the church” still get performed, and the community as a whole benefits. Moreover, the person who began performing such acts of service for imperfect reasons very often finds the performance of such acts rewarding in itself, and, many years after the child has either gained or not gained the desired school place, the parent is still perfoming “small acts of service to the church”, no longer for any purpose other than the fact that they enjoy it. And this is bad, because….?

  • MC

    The school has 6 applicants for every place it is able to offer.Demand from parents is unprecedented.Maybe this is the model of Catholic education which Mr Barber should be striving towards.

  • Antigone

    This is a ludicrous debate. What possible right does the church have to discriminate against catholic children on the basis of their parents’ behaviour? What kind of a catholic ethos is that? it should be a matter of some considerable shame to the school, its governors and the Diocese that an outstanding school like the vaughan has among the lowest penetration of free school meals pupils in kensington and chelsea. If you want better catholics then teach the children of “under-performing” catholic parents what their church has to offer and go out of your way to find and create places for those pupils. Too manycatholic schools now fail to have open days for potential entrants but open their door only to their wealthy neighbours or those who can afford to fund or otherwose contribute to their local parish. As a committed but broke cathoic working single parent I would love the time and money to contribute more to parish life bt its a considerable sadness to me that my child will be penalised because time and money prevent me being what my middle class neighbours call “a better Catholic”.

  • Lorettabradey

    As a result of these changes, no boys from my son’s junior school have been offered a place, for the first time in history. The furthest Band 1 offer was at 2.2 miles from the school, band 2 – 3.5miles and Band 3 similar. It is a bit shrinkage of “catchment area”, one we were not prepared for. Did the Vaughan expect this?.My son who is quite religious,and works hard is shocked. Next years applicant will be aware, but we had no idea this would happen. It make the rejection quite hard to take.

  • Celticmum

    Band 3 offers went upto 2.0 miles. The previous comment got posted before I could edit it. Big shrinkage. Half the previous area??

  • Annie

    Antigone- for your information the Vaughan has 10% free school meals . The Sacred Heart in Hammersmith has 6%, the Oratory has 5%, St Marks in Hounslow has 5%, Douay Martyrs and Sacred Heart in Harrow , Wimbledon College and Gumley all have 9% FSM . The school you are comparing the Vaughan to is called Sion Manning and it is undersubscribed with Catholics – in fact it has less than 50% Catholics. It has a whopping 40% Free School Meals. The question is why are you comparing the Vaughan with an undersubscribed school that is only half full of Catholics and cannot fill its year 7 places? Surely the diocese should spend its time trying to addrsss the problem of undersubscription in that school?

  • Localcatholicmum

    Please could you say when and where the public consultation took place?

  • Smithla

    The priority (last para) is for the chilren NOT the parents. thus it’s unfair to allocate or withhold places on the basisi of the parents’ failure to measure up. If the catholic church wants to replicate itself it should be reaching out and welcoming its prodigal children and they include catholics whose practicing leaves a bit to be desired. indeed their children should be the first priority not the last. Otherwise we’re not really making charity begin at home are we?