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Minister intervenes in Cardinal Vaughan row

Lord Lexden brought up the dispute over Cardinal Vaughan in the House of Lords (PA wire/Leon Neal)

A Government Minister has intervened in a row between Church authorities and parents at a top Catholic school in west London.

Education Minister Lord Hill said he would try to tighten regulations so that governing bodies have to include parents of children attending the school.

His statement came after the Diocese of Westminster refused to re-appoint any parent governors on the board of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

Its decision was challenged by parents but the Court of Appeal ruled that the diocese had acted lawfully in rejecting two parents as governors. Instead the diocese appointed parents of children who attended other Catholic schools. Paul Barber, the diocesan director of education, is one of the new governors.

Lord Hill announced his intention in a letter to Lord Lexden, who had raised concerns about the treatment of Cardinal Vaughan parents in the House of Lords.

Lord Lexden, a Conservative peer, said that “vigilance is needed in protecting choice and rights which parents have long enjoyed”.

He said that parents of Cardinal Vaughan pupils were being “denied their proper role”. “This is a case which has implications for all 4,000 voluntary-aided schools in England,” he said. “The law needs to be clarified.”

According to Lord Hill’s letter, the regulations will be tightened in an amendment to the Education Bill currently passing through Parliament. Consultation on it will begin in the autumn.

The Vaughan Parents’ Action Group described the intervention as a “breakthrough”.
In a statement it claimed that the diocese had gone to “extraordinary lengths” to keep Vaughan parents out of the governing body and had “shamelessly exploited” a loophole in the law. It said: “We don’t understand why the diocese has been at such pains to exclude us, but we believe that it has in mind changes to Cardinal Vaughan which no parent there would want.”

The group urged supporters to appeal to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster to appoint parent governors to the school before the recruitment of a new head teacher in the autumn.

Its statement said: “It is essential that everyone has confidence that the governing body is correctly constituted before it undertakes this most important task. Archbishop Nichols has the power to do this. He is clearly, in our view, morally obliged to do it.”

The battle for the control of Cardinal Vaughan began last year when the diocese rejected two parent governors and installed Mr Barber, its own director of education, on the board.

The move followed a fierce row over admissions criteria. In 2009 the diocese had reported the school to the Schools Adjudicator, arguing that it was in breach of the admissions code. The diocese stated that baptism should be the only religious criterion for admissions, whereas Cardinal Vaughan had asked if parents were involved in parish activities other than attending Mass. The Schools Adjudicator ruled that this was unlawful.

The school, in Kensington, south-west London, is heavily oversubscribed, turning down five out of every six applications.

Since the autumn parents have challenged the legality of the diocese’s appointments to the governing body in the High Court and in the Appeal Court. In both cases the judges backed the diocese.

The row escalated over the winter when Michael Gormally, the Vaughan’s retired headmaster, wrote a letter to Archbishop Nichols saying the diocese had treated the school “with contempt bordering on malice”.

Meanwhile, in April a meeting of the board of governors was interrupted because of parents and pupils holding a candle-lit vigil outside the gates and singing “Faith of our Fathers”.

The Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, formed last year, has peers, MPs, academics, lawyers and journalists as its patrons. The novelist Piers Paul Read, the former MP Ann Widdecombe, and Lord Lexden, who raised the issue in the House of Lords, are among them.