Page 9, 31st January 2003

31st January 2003
Page 9
Page 9, 31st January 2003 — Admissions policy in our Catholic schools why has the CES welcomed government interference?

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Admissions policy in our Catholic schools why has the CES welcomed government interference?

THE GOVERNMENT stands accused of introducing continuous change in schools. It says that it will try to reduce all this change, but, like an addict who cannot help himself, it keeps schools in constant turmoil.

If it concentrated on those schools which are notoriously unsuccessful, then excuses might be found for this incessant and peremptory interference. Astonishingly, however, the Government, while paying superficial tribute to Church " schools, is whittling away the rights of these schools, rights won over decades.

Catholic governing bodies have had their, rights removed in recent years to an extent that threatens the nature of Catholic schools. Our schools used to have complete control over the three things that are most important: the curriculum; the appointment of teachers; and the admissions of pupils.

In each of these, rights have been taken away. In the curriculum, governments introduced the compulsory national curriculum and now this Government is trying to force Catholic schools to teach such subjects as citizenship and even sex education. Employment law has weakened the ability of governors to appoint whom they want, and proposed legislation supposedly to outlaw "religious discrimination" will further reduce the ability of governors to make proper appointments.

Powers over the admission of pupils were gravely weakened by this Government's first Education Act, which reduced governors' autonomy. Now the Government is trying to enforce restrictions on our governors' rights to choose the pupils they want. There are several restrictive features but the worst is the Government's threat to take away the right of Catholic school governors to arrange interviews of potential pupils with their parents to help to decide who to admit. Not all schools use the existing powers, but many do, especially where, as in London, Catholic schools are heavily over-subscribed and not everyone who applies can be admitted. These schools and they include primaries — need to find out which pupils best fulfil the school's entrance requirements.

The principle involved is not trivial. Governors should be able to decide how best to do justice to all applicants. Many schools may now choose not to interview that is their right. However, there is an immense difference between choosing not to use a right and not having that right. Most schools will, at least, interview pupils whose parents move into the area: will this become illegal?

All independent schools will carry on interviewing, and once again it will be the aided schools which are handicapped. Parents value interviews and would think it strange not to have the opportunity themselves to interview the school, since the process is two-way.

Catholic governors are very close to parents. The largest single group on governing bodies is actually parents, whether elected or appointed. The next largest group is parish priests, again men who are in touch with their parishioners. These governors do a stalwart job for the Catholic Church and often receive little gratitude.

THE GOVERNMENT'S latest onslaught is disturbing but is not surprising. A government like this one will want to interfere in every aspect of life. What is surprising and even more disturbing — is that the very body who should defend the rights of Catholic governors and parents in England and Wales — the Catholic Education Service — has welcomed the Government's proposals. This shows a lack of confidence in governors. The CES is, in effect, saying to governors: "You cannot be trusted with your powers and so we are glad that the Govern ment is reducing them." Ms Oona Stannard of the CES says that it has consulted, but admits that this has been restricted to diocesan schools commissioners. If these commissioners were properly consulted and so far it has all been kept secret — then they, too, have let down the governors they are supposed to support. Governing bodies themselves have not been consulted.

The decision has been announced in the name of the bishops but probably many of them have not been consulted, any more than governors and head teachers have. But now they know, they should act decisively to reverse this blunder. They should tell the Government that it is none of its business how Catholic governing bodies manage their own affairs.

The CES should be told to support Catholic schools, not to hold the coats of those who are throwing stones at them. David Blunkctt famously said that if he knew what the ingredient of Church schools was, then he would have it bottled. Part of that ingredient is a strong governing body that runs its own affairs without the control of officious bureaucrats. Another feature is the existence of strong heads in Catholic schools.

One of these, Mr John McIntosh, of a certain Oratory School in London, has been critical of the move to diminish governors' rights. The Government, and the CES, 'should ask themselves why that school is one of the most successful in the country. A strong head with a strong governing body this is the formula for excellent schools.

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