Before I meet Paul Stubbings, head of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in west London, I read a preview of the latest Ofsted inspection report. It’s an encomium: “Pupils grow and flourish in every way here,” it says. “They are extremely proud to be part of this strong and caring school community. Leaders and staff have very high expectations for all pupils. They work together to help pupils develop into well-rounded individuals who love learning and achieve highly.” There’s lots more of the same.
Paul Stubbings himself is modest about his achievement. “Being head of Cardinal Vaughan is like being manager of Manchester United,” he says. “There’s institutional momentum. The point is not to go downhill, but to keep pushing.”
What gives him pride is that the pupils at Cardinal Vaughan are happy to return to school. Post-Covid, they were, he says, “delighted to be back”. These pupils were the first generation who were deprived of school because of the pandemic. “I’m a professional educator,” he says. “And it’s axiomatic that the children help educate each other.”
Paul Stubbings is a tall, direct and friendly man, which must help for a head of a school with over a thousand pupils. He came to the school as a teacher in his twenties; by 30 he had become a Catholic. “The Vaughan made me a Catholic,” he says.
We meet after the Epiphany, when normally the school goes to Mass at the parish church in Kensington; this year Covid meant it happened at school. He’s fortunate in having a diocesan priest as chaplain who comes once a week and a rota of 15 diocesan priests who say Mass. There’s the option of confession every week: from an average class of 30, seven to 10 pupils might go. It’s a real feat.
Right now, the job of Catholic educators is uniquely challenging. “Young people never change,” he says. “But there’s a generational change. This current crew are more ethically principled than they were 20 years ago. They’re seekers after truth, but not necessarily in the right places. They’re looking at the world, at racism. They are idealistic, but they have a rarified self-referential idealism. Our job as Catholic educators is to nudge them towards the truth. Our job is to afford a sense of balance and context.”
Why are so many young people hostile to the Church? I ask. “It’s advanced quizzicalism on their part,” he says. “Christianity is rapidly becoming residual. Secularism is much better at explaining its principles – the Church isn’t. You could say we’re St Paul at Corinth now.”
I ask about the other aspect of pupils’ lives: the internet and social media. “When we were growing up there was one moral universe,” he says. “Everyone knew the boundaries, some people crossed them. Now there are two.” And the characteristic of the online moral universe is “hyper-personalism”. All young people, he thinks, are “dual nationals”, belonging to the normal world of family and school, and of the hyper-personalised internet.
“To be young, you have to inhabit two moral universes. It’s tiring to negotiate both.”
The tension between values in a family and parish and online mores is evident in sexual behaviour. “When I was brought up, you’d never think of asking a girl for a nude photo,” he says. “In that other, online moral universe, you can. The job of a Catholic educator is to posit eternal values to a constantly changing world. But you have to meet young people where they are, rather than where they should be.”
Of the Vaughan’s 1,029 pupils, 385 are in sixth form, of whom 120 are girls. He insists that in upper school, the Vaughan is not a boys’ school that takes girls, but a mixed school: “The girls are not isolated and beleaguered.” He thinks boys and girls are good for each other. “Boys as an educational gender have a tendency to be overconfident; girls tend not to trust their own resources. The sexes knock off each others’ rough edges.” Inevitably, there are some intense relationships. “They are young men and women together, learning to be adults; mistakes will be made.”
The problems were evident last year when a website, Everyone’s Invited, allowed girls to share their bad experiences of boys’ schools, including sexual aggression and objectification. Stubbings has thought hard about the issue. “Kids must know that when these things happen, it’s dealt with. An environment has to exist where pupils trust the adults to do the right thing.”
One aspect of the school that Ofsted inspectors praised was that in cases of bullying, pupils knew whom to go to. “There’s a specifically Catholic aspect to this. We need to take an holistic view of the whole person in their dignity, and show why the Church is teaching what it is. Then we encourage them to test the hypotheses in open debate.”
The Vaughan has a proper curriculum for relationships and sex. “There’s been a tendency to take the question of sex education in an atomised way – either excessively scientific or excessively religious. What use is that to two semi-drunk teenagers in a clinch with a mobile phone in the room? There’s no point in preaching the virtues of chastity at them – it has to be holistic. We can’t hide behind a Catholic ethos to dodge the hard questions, like homosexuality. Some kids see the Church as being in contortions of its own making – which detracts from its dignity.”
What distinguishes Stubbings’s approach is his clear sense of what the school is for. He’s unfazed that some pupils who apply to the school are iffy Catholics. “A school place isn’t a reward for good Catholics.” He works with the pupils he’s got. “The degree to which we are successful is the degree to which we present the truth of the living God and they experience a relationship with the living God.” Which is what Catholic education is about.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund