Teresa Maher says that Catholic schools offer much more than a brilliant education. This is an important training ground for the secular world to come Cagiolic schools shine in the league tables, leaving parents of a variety of faiths and none battering at the doors for places. But scales of academic results only scratch the surface of what Catholic schools offer.
The Catholic sector stakes no claims to having a monopoly on delivering a great education, but there is, nevertheless, a disproportionately large number of high-achieving Church schools, famously inspiring former education Secretary David Blunkett to comment that he would like to find their secret so he could "bottle their ethos and success".
Parents choosing a Catholic school think they know that secret and are equally confident that a secular school could not replicate it. The children go to a school run by people and filled with people who share the same values and world view, Don Leavy, headmaster of the Ofsted-designated beacon primary of St Joseph's in North London for the past 20 years, has no doubt that the common outlook is what makes the system work so well.
"There is a glue that holds us all together and that is our Catholic faith; that is what gets me out of bed every morning," he explains.
Our faith provides a common language, a shared practice and a mutual respect for each person as a vessel of God. There is a belief that the values of the community transcend the desires of the individual.
The understanding of what is right and wrong, good or had, acceptable or not is not based on what is fair or what does the least harm but by an informed conscience that is actively encouraged by parents, teachers and community who subscribe to the same principles outlined by Jesus Christ.'
A shared belief in Gospel values may be all that many of the children at St Joseph's and schools like it share when they arrive: only 60 per cent of its pupils come from a white ethnic background; 23 per cent are from a black ethnic heritage and 26 per cent use English as an additional language. A massive 30 per cent are eligible for free school meals.
Interestingly the 30 per cent figure is almost certainly too low; Ofsted acknowledges that at Catholic schools far fewer people ask for free meals than are eligible for them, perhaps out of a combination of Catholic guilt and Catholic pride.
The demand for places at Catholic schools shows no signs of flagging with recent waves of inunigrants, notably from Poland and Latin America, overwhelmingly Catholic and wanting a Catholic education for their children. Catholic schools have a higher proportion of pupils from minority ethnic groups nationally than other maintained schools.
But for all their academic success, Catholic schools' impressive exam results are not the be-all and end-all.
Most do not select children primarily on the basis of intellectual ability and, as a result, there is a high proportion of children with special needs.
In the Catholic private sector, the emphasis is on helping each child achieve his or her potential; Catholic schools are often willing to take lower ability children rejected by other schools. The schools may have a lower place in the league tables but are they really interior to schools that take only the brightest and best and produce results to match?
The Ofsted report on Ampleforth, one of the premier Catholic boarding schools, notes: "Appropriate support and evident care are provided for the less able students in all departments."
This suggests Gospel values in action rather more than would a strict policy of only accepting pupils headed for 12 A*s at GCSE.
Children with specific learning difficulties or behavioural problems respond well to the disciplined environment that characterises Catholic schools. The high degree of organisation and clear expectations can lead to a turnaround in the behaviour of children who have been regarded as impossible at other schools and suddenly find themselves being treated as children of God with intrinsic worth.
Children without particular problems also benefit from a controlled inclusive approach that should teach them tolerance, compassion and help overcome prejudice.
Alex Walker, a six-year-old excluded from two private schools for behavioural problems, is now thriving at a state Catholic primary school.
"When the other schools said they couldn't keep him 1 thought my heart would break," says his mother, Amanda.
"I trooped him from assessments at school to school but they just kept slamming the door in our faces. Nobody wanted him and the parents at the private schools were hostile: they were paying for an education and my son was jeopardising it."
"I tried so hard at the beginning. i apologised if he'd done something wrong and tried to set up play dates but in the end I used to grab him at the end of the day and run because I couldn't bear the poisonous looks and barbed comments. He ended up being a scapegoat for everything; he was totally iso
hated and I was too."
Contrary to Amanda's expectations, the atmosphere at the state school was much calmer and more controlled than at Alex's prep school. The staff were ready with a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on when there were problems. After days of tantrums at the thought of having to go to school, as well as trauma when he arrived and was expected to work, Alex knuckled down.
"The change was stunning. He came home telling me he had to do his reading, instead of just throwing the book at me, screaming that he was too, stupid to do it. They reward him when he gets it right and he messes up — and that still happens — after he's been told o or made to miss playtime, he a clean slate. If he's involved in an incident with another child, they listen rather than just blaming him straight off."
For teenagers, a Catholic school represents a safe place that can nurture faith before their metr tie is tested in the adult workplace where a practising Christian can end up feeling like a visitor from an alien planet. Jokes about Judaism or Islam may be frowned upon in our secular world but Catholicism is fair game.
The tone of religious teaching is also important and a faith school will not take the supermarket approach of laying all the religions out before children and giving them equal weight. It will teach your children about other faiths and to be respectful of them but its own patterns of worship are Catholic and the Gospel is gospel.
An education in a milieu where there is an assumption that teenagers will not be having sex or taking chugs can also make it more likely that they will resist. A rigid uniform code will provide a handy conduit for teenage rebellion — better a school skirt that is three inches above the knee than a visit to the local drug dealer.
Ursula Morrisey, headmistress of St Michael's Catholic Grammar School in Barnet, North London, believes passionately in the value of a Catholic education.
'There are so many pressures on children today, particularly adolescents, that 1 feel they need the adults around them to speak with a consistent voice on values and the school is a vital part of that. We aim for a holy trinity of home, school and parish, all delivering the same message."
St Michael's is a selective school that takes only the brightest girls but, even so, the results are impressive. It was lauded by Ofsted in its last report in 2005 as an exceptional school that provides excellent value for money.
But even here, academic results are not paramount.
"Once a St Michael's girl, always a St Michael's girl."
Miss Morrisey describes joining St Michael's as becoming part of a family that will do its best to support you; girls who fall behind are helped, not drummed out for fear that they will drag the school down the league tables.
Schools Minister Andrew Adonis told a Catholic education service conference in London this year that learning, "duty and compassion" were as important as exam success; most Catholic schools offer both.