BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
CATHOLIC PRIMARY schools have far fewer pupils from low-income families than regular state schools, according to new research published this week.
The study, commissioned by Iris – the Institute for Research in Integrated Statistics – looked at 391 primary schools, of which 47 were Catholic and 57 Church of England.
Using 2003 data it compared the proportion of children who qualified for free school meals with the proportion of such children within the local postcode area. If pupils attended their nearest school then, the study surmised, the figures should have been comparable.
But the findings varied widely. In one instance only 10 per cent of children on a school’s register qualified for free school meals compared with over 45 per cent in the locality.
Church schools had noticeably fewer “poor” children. The study found that Catholic schools, in particular, had nine per cent fewer children who could be categorised as poor compared with the local average. Looking at schools’ test results the study also found that 66 per cent of the Catholic schools were in the top twofifths of attainment, compared with only 29 per cent of socalled “community schools”.
There was no indication as to whether or not this attainment could be seen in terms of the wealth of the local area or the quality of teaching.
The author of the report, Chris Waterman, insisted that he did not want to jump to conclusions about its findings, arguing that there were a number of factors at play.
Church schools, because of their focus on children of faith, drew from a far wider catchment area than other primary schools, he said. He also acknowledged that middleclass parents might be more motivated to ensure that their children attended a school with a good performance record and were likely to use this as their main criteria for selection.
But the study is likely to fuel the arguments of the secularist lobby, which is keen to remove faith schools from the state system altogether.
Speaking to The Catholic Herald this week some parents of children at Catholic primary schools said the findings were misinformative and displayed a bias against faith schools.
One mother said: “This proves the adage ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. My experience of Catholic schools is that they cater for all abilities, regardless of social standing. Good exam results reflect the onus on discipline and hard work which Catholic schools foster.” Another parent said many Catholic schools within the state sector were educating special needs children whom the private sector had rejected.
“Catholic primary schools are mixed in the best sense of the word,” she said. “They have children of all colours, from rich and poor backgrounds and they all feel valued. The children learn to care for each other and the disciplined atmosphere means they receive an extremely good education.
“Catholic schools accept a high proportion of children with learning difficulties and these children are supported by the staff and children alike. Parents at my son’s school told Ofsted inspectors last week that they could not praise the school highly enough. I couldn’t agree more.” In its admissions guidance the Catholic Education Service says Catholic schools must give priority to Catholic children but “governing bodies will also want to give thought to the Church’s mission to the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged”.
While admitting the shortcomings of this study, Mr Waterman has said there is a case for a more comprehensive study on a nationally representative sample of schools.
Adirector of Iris, he worked as a primary teacher and taught basic skills in a further education college before spending eight years as an education officer in a London borough.