Oratory School wins High Court battle – but Catholic spokeswoman says other schools should not follow its example
BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE CATHOLIC Education Service is backing a controversial Government policy that forbids Catholic schools from interviewing prospective parents – despite a High Court ruling that supports the right of Catholic governors to select pupils.
The High Court has ruled that the London Oratory, alma mater of Tony Blair’s sons Euan and Nicky, can use interviews as part of its admissions process.
The judgment flies in the face of Labour policy that bans Catholic schools from interviewing parents about their faith on the grounds that it could lead to the selection of brighter pupils.
Catholic campaigners for greater school autonomy were delighted by the ruling, handed down just before Christmas.
But now the Catholic Education Service (CES) has announced that “the Catholic Church continues to oppose interviews as part of the election procedure in the case of over-subscription to Catholic schools”.
Oona Stannard, chief executive of the CES, added: “A recent judicial review in the case of the Oratory School does not change this position.” The Government is opposed to state schools using selection to cream off academically able pupils. Under a new admissions code, headteachers must submit their admissions procedures to the local education authority for approval.
The Oratory – a voluntary-aided school in Fulham, west London – is one of the most heavily oversubscribed schools in the country. Headmaster John McIntosh argued that his school could not depend solely on statements from parish priests to confirm the “Catholicity” of prospective pupils, and needed individual interviews to establish an applicant’s degree of religious practice and commitment.
Ruling in favour of the Oratory, Mr Justice Jackson said it had made a “formidable case” for retaining interviews and schools did not have to demonstrate “slavish obedience” to the admission rules.
The judgment was expected to open the way for a number of appeals as Catholic schools sought to define their own admissions criteria and reintroduce interviews.
But – to the fury of some Catholic education campaigners – the CES has sided with the Government.
Its announcement this week effectively bans Catholic schools from following the Oratory’s lead.
The statement said: “In the case of the Oratory School, the judicial review found that the process of adjudication, including timing and communications, made it unreasonable for the Oratory not to continue with interviews for this academic year.
“This does not mean that any other school may re-introduce interviews this academic year, or in the future. The judgment, in the case of the Oratory and its conduct of interviews, applies only to the Oratory and only for this academic year.
“By its very nature, interviews for places can be, even if unwittingly, a system of social selection or selection based on ability.
“The Church is, therefore, pleased that the overarching Government ruling against the practice of interviews for admissions remains in place.” One headmaster warned that the CES’s intervention could undermine negotiations with his local education authority.
Alan Whelan, principal of St Benedict’s College, Colchester, said the High Court ruling had reaffirmed the right of Catholic schools to educate Catholic children. “It is fundamentally making the point that Catholic schools are not the same as other schools, and they have the right to interview,” he said. “Effectively it is giving us the authority to establish our own admissions criteria.” Mr Whelan has battled with Essex County Council over his school’s admissions procedures – St Benedict’s gave priority to children who named the school as their first choice. He said the CES statement was “likely to undermine discussions with hardline authorities such as Essex”.
“The judgment also made clear that these were guidelines put forward by Government, and not gospel truths, and the greater importance of maintaining the Catholic ethos of the school was found to be paramount,” he said.
“It has significant application for Catholic schools across the country. At a diocesan level, we have been advised to follow our usual admissions procedures.” Eric Hester, a former Catholic headmaster and an independent schools inspector, challenged the Catholic Education Service to explain why it was backing he Government.
“The CES does not make the law for Catholic schools,” he said. “I challenge it to show me the teachings of any pope that dictate that Catholic schools should not interview. I don’t recall it being mentioned in any of the four gospels. Why they are doing this?” He insisted that the judgment would set an important precedent for school governors.
“All over the country, Catholic governors have felt obliged to hand over their admissions procedures to the local authority. This might not now be necessary,” he said.
The case came to the High Court after an appeal by the governors of a local primary school in Fulham, who claimed that the Oratory’s admission criteria were not sufficiently “clear, fair or objective”.
Schools’ adjudicator Dr Elizabeth Passmore agreed and ordered the Oratory to conform to the guidelines. But the Oratory’s counsel, Charles Bear QC, said the school had fulfilled its obligation to take pupils from varied backgrounds and with a wide range of abilities. Scrapping interviews would undermine the Oratory’s unique Catholic ethos – a view upheld by the court.
As The Catholic Herald went to press, the new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly was expected to launch preliminary details of Labour’s education election manifesto at a in the north of England.
Editorial Comment: Pages 11