Voluntary aided schools are covered by legislation that requires them to adhere to an Admissions Code of Practice determined by the government. For schools of a religious character, this Code expects school governing bodies to have regard to the guidance of the relevant religious body in deciding their admissions arrangements. For Catholic schools, this expects the school to defer to the policy of the diocese in which the school is located on admissions criteria, though there is some "wriggle room" in the wording of the legislation. This means that Catholic schools can still include provisions that give preference to the admission of Catholic pupils. The purpose underlying this legislation was to remove concerns being expressed by some politicians that some schools, and not only schools with a religious designation, were adopting covertly selective admissions policies; it was intended to ensure that, with the compromises to selection for pupil aptitude based on a schools specialism, admissions to all schools were transparently fair and non-selective.
A number of interesting questions are raised by the determination of the Schools Adjudicator.
1. There is the question of the relationship between the individual school and the local Bishop, as expressed in the school's relationship to the educational policy of the diocese. This is a matter of legislation in terms of the Admissions Code. But it is also, in a sense, a "theological" question. From the point of view of the Catholic community, it is about unity with the Bishop as a measure of catholicity. It is about whether this unity is lived just "in the letter" or in a full sense.
2. The central objection of the Diocese is expressed in the press release:
The determination upheld the Diocese of Westminster's central objection that the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School’s complex points system and criteria "inappropriately give priority according to the applicant’s, or his parent’s, involvement in church related activities." (Paragraph 92 of the Schools Adjudicator's Determination) This was contrary to the Admissions Code and the Diocesan Bishop’s Guidance, and the Adjudicator said: "In order to have proper regard to diocesan guidance the points system should be dropped in favour of the determination of membership and practice of the Catholic faith as defined by the diocese." (Paragraph 99 of the Schools Adjudicator's Determination)
The diocese has defined that a person is a practising Catholic if they attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and does not expect its schools to apply any further test as to the practise of prospective pupils or their families. Anecdotally, the sort of points system referred to in the press release has not been unique to Cardinal Vaughan School, being familiar from experience of other now-comprehensive, frequently former-grammar, Catholic schools. My anecdotal evidence suggests that other schools have been more ready to phase out such points system than has been the case at Cardinal Vaughan.
[But see here for the admissions criteria of a Catholic school that still proposes, in part, to use a points system for 2010-2011 admissions.]
3. But the underlying issue raised by point 2 above is about what - or who - the school is for.
Is it the purpose of the school to act to maintain and promote its own status? And therefore to adopt an admissions policy that will achieve that?
Is the school only for those pupils whose families are, not only practising Catholics, but what one might describe as "committed and active Catholics"?
Is the school for all Catholics, including those whose practise is minimal?
How far is the school for non-Catholics?
To reflect effectively on these questions, the Catholic school has to be seen within the context of the Church's mission of evangelisation. The General Directory for Catechesis recognises the possibility of schools where most students attending are Catholics, and others where most pupils attending do so because of the educational provision rather than out of religious belief (cf n.260). Different approaches to religious education, and indeed to the work of the whole school, apply in these different situations. The Directory suggests that it is opportune that the bishop specify the type of catechetical activity to be undertaken in their schools. This is clearly related to the admissions policies of those schools.
In the case of schools where most pupils attending are Catholics, the cited paragraph of the Directory accepts that evangelisation can be undertaken in its "multiple forms": primary proclamation, religious instruction, catechesis, homily. This seems to me to recognise that, within the population of such a school, pupils will be at differing points in the journey of evangelisation - and so, as far as admissions policies are concerned, there should be no discrimination in favour of those who are "committed/active" in their Catholicism over those who are "practising". Indeed, one might feel that those who are less committed and active are those who are more in need of the evangelising mission of this type of Catholic school.
4. Are the parents who concentrate their efforts on the good upbringing and care of their family, or, perhaps on the conscientious engagement of their Catholic faith with their professional employment; and therefore do not have the time to be parish catechists or extraordinary ministers, any less Catholic than those who are busy in their parishes? This is the kind of issue which can lead the points systems to be discriminatory. It can potentially discriminate against those parents who live most fully the lay character of their mission in the Church.
5. In this country, the historical development of Catholic schooling has meant that they are primarily seen as "Catholic schools for Catholic pupils". Their general failure to produce young people who leave the school as practising Catholics is often related to inadequacy in the catechetical/teaching schemes used for RE teaching in the school. There is some truth in this. But I suspect that our schools have needed to undertake a degree of transition that has not really happened. Whilst at the time of their initial founding a Catholic school might have been able to fulfil its Catholic specificity through teaching the Catechism, for many years now that has not been sufficient. A much greater degree of engagement between faith and culture in the work of the school has been needed, and I suspect that we have been in a weak position to achieve this because we do not have a wide experience in England of those Catholic schools where many of the pupils are not Catholics. The kind of Catholic-cultural dialogue that such schools encourage is actually badly needed in schools where the pupils are mostly Catholics.
Which brings us back to Admissions Policies ...