As the deadline for secondary applications looms this week, a row between parents and officials has left one of London's best Catholic state schools without a head.
You know you are not inside a bog standard comprehensive when you walk into a Latin lesson at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and all the pupils spring respectfully to their feet.
Outside the classrooms, the male teachers and the senior prefects progress along the corridors in academic gowns, as though they are dons floating across an Oxford quad. There is no interest in the staff room in advancing media studies — at this Holland Park comprehensive, it's more classics, science, maths, music, modern languages and a stiff dose of Catholicism.
The honours board hanging above the main staircase proudly records this year's haul of Oxbridge places — 12, one of the highest of any non-private school in the country. Almost every boy and girl goes on from the school to some form of higher education.
Then there is the strong sense of Catholic devotion. The rosary and Angelus are recited every day. At mass, the boys and girls — who are admitted into the sixth form — kneel on the bare floor. They are encouraged, though not compelled, to attend confession. Discipline is strict, though the school is certainly not solemn.
The teachers josh around with the boys and girls in the corridors between lessons but there is no doubt who is in charge. Bad behaviour and slacking at homework are not tolerated. The teachers use unfashionable words such as “punishment”.
“The Vaughan”, as generations of old boys and their parents call it, feels almost like a public school, or perhaps more precisely like an old-fashioned grammar school because the children, though impeccably mannered, do not seem “posh”.
As required by laws governing comprehensive school intakes, the Vaughan admits a mixed band of clever and not very clever children from Catholic primary schools; they are ethnically mixed — there are lots of Poles — and some 40 per cent of the children speak English as an additional language at home.
Yet in its unapologetic commitment to academic achievement, the Vaughan is a little like the grammar school depicted in Alan Bennett's History Boys but with a strong Roman influence and without the flattened vowels and high camp flourishes. “The Pope would absolutely love this school,” says one parent. “It's just a shame that our Catholic hierarchy cannot appreciate its strengths.”
With its stellar A-level results, fantastic Ofsted reports and stunning music, it is no surprise that the Vaughan attracts five or six applicants for every place. Parents love it because it offers an education that would cost upwards of £20,000 a year across the way at St Paul's or Westminster, and it is precisely this level of achievement that has led to a ferocious row over the “gerrymandering” of the school's board of governors.
Last Thursday, this erupted out of the pages of the Tablet and into a potentially ruinously expensive legal battle pitching the Vaughan against the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and the Westminster Diocese Education Service (WDES). A group of parent governors sent a letter to parents pleading for funds to take the diocese to court to stop what the governors see as a blatant attempt to destroy the Vaughan as one of the very best Catholic comprehensive schools in the country.
The row at the Vaughan reflects a London-wide problem for many of the better church schools, which are heavily oversubscribed, causing tension between church authorities and disappointed parents. The London Oratory, which competes with the Vaughan to be regarded as London's top Catholic state school, turns away scores of disappointed parents each year.
The Brompton Oratory, which is linked to the school, records attendance so that sharp-elbowed middle-class parents cannot fool the admissions staff. Nick Clegg, an avowed atheist married to a Spanish Catholic, is said to be considering sending his children there.
The Vaughan has unwittingly become the battleground between liberal and conservative English Catholics in a war to determine what is a proper state-funded Catholic education.
Overwhelmed by applications for its prized places, the Vaughan decided to demand proof of levels of Catholic adherence beyond the diocese's standard requirement that children be baptised Catholics whose parents regularly attend mass.
“We found middle-class parents were good at playing the system, and that parish priests would just sign the form confirming attendance as a favour,” says Sir Adrian Fitzgerald, former chairman of the governors, who was returned to the board by Kensington and Chelsea council. So the Vaughan asked for evidence of parental “involvement” in Catholic affairs as a means of weeding out less devout applicants.
This was regarded as uncontroversial by the parent body but caught the attention of officials at the Westminster diocese. To the fury of parents and staff at the school, the WDES reported the Vaughan to the Government inspectorate for breaching comprehensives' admissions policies.
The diocese argues that demanding higher levels of Catholic commitment discriminates against poor children whose parents are less able to contribute by volunteering at parish events, or cleaning the church.
That one Catholic bureaucratic body should report a Catholic school to a secular schools inspectorate was regarded as a gross betrayal by the Vaughan and by many in the wider London Catholic community.
Worse still, so far as the Vaughan was concerned, the diocese began to use its powers to purge the school board. Six governors deemed supportive of the school were ousted, then the dioceses imposed as a governor Paul Barber, director of WDES, a lawyer who has no direct teaching experience.
Barber was the official who reported the school to the secular schools adjudicator so his appointment to the board caused fury, prompting parent governors to secure a temporary injunction barring his appointment as a conflict of interest.
The upshot is that because of the injunction, the Vaughan's board of governors is unable to meet, and it is impossible to select a replacement for the much-loved headmaster, Michael Gormally, who has retired because of ill health.
Many parents believe the diocese has deliberately paralysed the governing body so that it can impose a liberal outsider on the school as the next headmaster and begin to purge the Vaughan of its conservative Catholicism and unpick its unapologetic academic elitism.
“The diocese clearly wants to change the school,” says Sir Adrian Fitzgerald, an outspoken sixth baronet who divides his time between west London and his ancestral home in Ireland.
“Why are they picking on this school when they should be worrying about failing schools in London?” He believes that the officials in WDES are “wagging the dog” and persuading the bishops to impose conventional Left-wing ideology on the schools.
Patti Fordyce, another governor whose term was terminated by the diocese in August, believes the WDES is trying to impose its vision of modish Catholic liturgy suitable for young people, “all tambourines and guitars, all that stuff that is as embarrassing as watching parents dance at a disco”.
Fordyce, whose own son attended the Vaughan, says that what children really respond to “is the beauty of the liturgy”.
The Vaughan is clearly at a crossroads, and staff and parents fear that should the diocese prevail in imposing a liberal outsider as headmaster, the best teachers will leave, and the school could simply collapse.
The Westminster diocese refuses to explain why its director of education, Paul Barber, has been appointed to the Vaughan's board. Officials say the row is a matter of “authority” and that it is for the bishops, not school governors, to determine admissions' criteria.
Barber is not, and has never been, a governor of any other school in the diocese, even those which have been placed under watch as “failing”.
Parents and staff argue that if entrance criteria became more specifically geographical, it would benefit principally the ultra-rich who live in the multi-million pound houses on Addison Road in Holland Park rather than the wider Catholic community of west London.
At the Vaughan, where the teachers are caught in the crossfire, it is business as usual, though Charles Eynaud, the acting headmaster, concedes the legal dispute is taking its toll.
“We are looking forward to a speedy resolution of this matter so that we can move on and the Vaughan can continue to improve and flourish,” he says, declining to comment further.
A PROUD PARENT'S VIEW
As the mother of a teenager at Cardinal Vaughan, it's easy to see why the school is popular among parents and heavily over-subscribed. But what is it that makes it quite so good?
The commitment of the teachers is one thing. The head of music regularly gives up his Sundays to organise the Big Band's performances at a Barnes pub; other teachers volunteer to coach football and rugby, unpaid, on Saturdays.
One of my daughter's masters spent two lunchtimes last week while on playground duty walking round explaining Greek tragedy to her because she had joined his class late in the term and needed to catch up.
There's a strong sense of common purpose among teachers, staff and pupils.
Although the Vaughan's standards of discipline and manners are exceptionally high (my daughter tells me that the boys even hold doors open for the girls), the atmosphere is not harsh or regimented. What rules there are are rigorously enforced but there aren't that many of them; it's as if good behaviour is expected and so good behaviour is — with some exceptions — achieved.
Also popular with parents and pupils are the virtually unrivalled musical opportunities and the wide-ranging after-school clubs. And, of course, there is the excellence of the teaching and results across all abilities.
But Cardinal Vaughan is, first and foremost, a Catholic school. Its strong and authentic Catholic ethos binds together parents, pupils, staff and teachers and is a visible and tangible force everywhere.
Catholic parents, determined to keep their children practising the faith in a culture which is increasingly hostile to religion, love the reverence with which mass at the Vaughan is always celebrated; they love it that the sign of the cross is made before every lesson and that the Angelus is recited every day.
And when their 11-year-old comes home from school and tells them that he and his friends have joined the rosary club, it is music to their ears.