Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

Archbishop Vincent Nichols didn’t do his homework over the Cardinal Vaughan …

October 18, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

Archbishop Nichols needs to do his homework

It's a pretty extraordinary state of affairs when the Government has to overrule Catholic education officers to ensure a school's Catholic ethos. Yet this has been the case at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School where, as I have written before, parents who cherished their school's Catholicity have had to fight Westminster diocesan education authorities who felt the school's Catholic character smacked of elitism. The authorities wanted to shoehorn in their own headmaster to do their bidding; parents resisted this and mounted one of the most impassioned "lay power" campaigns the Church in this country has ever witnessed.

The fact that it proved successful is in no small part thanks to Michael Gove, Education Secretary. Edward Leigh MP, yesterday in Parliament, thanked Gove for protecting the school's ethos and its parents' wishes. Leigh hailed Gove's "personal efforts in trying to resolve" the matter, which led to the appointment of a new headteacher "in line with parents' wishes". You can watch the exchange below:

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In Leigh's eyes, and in those of all the Vaughan parents I have spoken to, there is no question about what happened behind the scenes of this remarkable U-turn: Gove arm-twisted Archbishop Vincent Nichols into changing his line. Gove did this by reminding the Archbishop that he had the power, conferred by the 1996 Education Act, to intervene and call for an investigation into the school's appointment practices. Nichols, I hear, expressed his disappointment at Gove's telephone intercession. But within 24 hours he climbed off his high horse and let the parents finally have what they sought: a good headmaster, the existing deputy head Paul Stubbings, who believes in Catholic schools being Catholic.

It was a humiliating event in the Archbishop's stellar career. All the more so because Charles Moore wrote a scathing – but impeccably well-informed – piece lambasting the Church authorities for having dragged the good name of Catholic schools and parents in the mud.

This was too much for the poor Archbishop. He'd lost the war against parents, he must now save his face. Which is why, in the letters' page of the Daily Telegraph today, Archbishop Nichols denies that he was forced into an about-turn. He did not step in at the last minute, under pressure from Michael Gove, he claims.

Yet study the wording of his letter: behind formulaic talk of "mission of our schools" and "legal duty of the governors", anyone can draw the conclusion that Vin Nichols hadn't done his homework. He could be pushed into a corner by the Secretary of State because the latter had done his: he had investigated complaints, spoken to both opponents of the parents' campaign, and supporters of it. He knew whereof he spoke, in other words. The Archbishop instead had listened to one side of this story – the authorities' side. I am told that he had not visited the school, or spoken with the furious parents who cherished it. He had relied on Paul Barber, the diocesan director of education, to inform him about the goings-on; unfortunately, given that Barber's vision of the Vaughan as an "inclusive" school was the one the parents objected to, this saddled Vin with a one-sided perspective.

What are the lessons for the future? One lesson is to be enshrined in law: that a foundation or a trust must fully represent parents on the board of governors. Another lesson is, in Edward Leigh's words, that the whole ethos of policy should be "to enable parents to have the dominant say" in the running of a school. But there's a third lesson: no one, not even the most highly placed churchman, can afford to rely on second-hand information. If Nichols had done his homework, he would have saved a school – and his face.

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