Church school falls foul of Government

By Sharon AsplinA CHURCH school principal has accused the Education Secretary of failing to comprehend the purpose of Catholic schools after he ruled against its admissions policy.

By Sharon Asplin

A CHURCH school principal has accused the Education Secretary of failing to comprehend the purpose of Catholic schools after he ruled against its admissions policy.

Alan Whelan, principal of St Benedict's College in Colchester, was responding after Education Secretary Charles Clarke ruled he was wrong to penalise pupils who did not opt for a Catholic school as their first choice.

Mr Whelan has now been ordered to remove the stipulation from the admissions policy, but he said, practically, the ruling would make little difference, although but it was a point of principle.

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"I am a little bit surprised by the Secretary of State's reaction and I think he does not understand what Catholic education is about," he added.

"In making their decision, the governors followed what the bishops in the area had decided should be the admissions criteria and I am surprised there should be such a conflict between the Church and State on an issue such as this.

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"It is sad day for church schools that the Secretary of State has decided he knows better than the bishops about what the purpose of a Catholic education is. Catholic schools are for Catholics, first and foremost."

Mr Whelan stressed he was not unhappy that the county council now co-ordinated admissions across Essex because it was simpler and fairer.

But he had hoped the Government would have taken more account of the spirit of the 1944 Education Act, which recognised Catholic schools were significant providers of education with special circumstances.

Essex County Council referred an objection in May to the Schools Adjudicator about the admission arrangements for entry to the secondary school for the year beginning September 2005 and that was referred in June to the Education Secretary to make a decision.

The county council opposed admission arrangements that gave priority to applicants who wanted a Catholic education, believing it disadvantaged parents who might wish to express a preference for a selective school or alternative comprehensive.

It also argued that placing a Catholic school as first preference on its form might not show a genuine desire for a Catholic education, as parents could choose the school for another reason – for example, proximity or because it offered particular facilities.

But Mr Whelan said the "first and foremost condition" had arisen from an agreement by the Roman Catholic dioceses of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood and was a requirement of the trustees of these three dioceses in respect of admission to their schools.

He added the governors did not seek to give additional preference to applicants who chose St Benedict's College as their first preference, but only required that they put Catholic education first.

In a statement issued by Mr Clarke, he partially upheld the county council's objection and found the proposed admissions policy, while not unlawful, was unfair and not in accordance with the School Admissions Code of Practice.

"The Secretary of State considers that this test of Catholicism is potentially not a fair one and may act to fetter parental preference by influencing the choices a parent may make by disadvantaging them if they do not put a Catholic school as their first preference," it said.

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