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Diverse face of Catholicism

Their schools take a wider range of ethnic minority pupils, but commitment to RE narrows the curriculum

Graeme Paton Roman Catholic schools are among the most socially diverse in the country, but many are failing to provide a balanced education, according to a report by the Church. The 2,041 Catholic primary and secondary schools in England and Wales have more pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds than other schools, according to the study released today by the Catholic Education Service.

Despite accusations that church schools pick the best pupils, the numbers of children from poor homes and with disabilities also reflect the national average. Oona Stannard, the service's director and chief executive , said:

"The survey counteracts some of the current myths about Catholic schools."

However, the study raises concerns over the breadth of education offered in some schools, saying that many secondaries had a narrow curriculum.

Only 48 per cent of study programmes for pupils aged 14 to 19 in Catholic schools were rated good by Ofsted, compared with 62 per cent of other schools. It said that the commitment of Catholic secondary schools to dedicate 10 per cent of the timetable to RE may have a bearing on this.

The Church introduced new guidelines last week, to make its schools more open to other faiths. However, it has refused to follow the Church of England in creating quotas of pupils from other faiths, saying that such a move would dilute their Catholic ethos.

The study, based on an analysis of Ofsted inspections of all schools between 2003 and 2005, shows that academic standards at the age of 11 and 16 are higher than the national average in Catholic schools. Pupils at Catholic secondaries also achieve better value-added scores.

Reflecting Catholic schools' diverse intake, the report said 18.2 per cent of primary and 20 per cent of secondary school pupils are from black or Asian backgrounds, compared with around 16 per cent nationally.

The study also suggested that pupil attitudes are better at Catholic schools, adding weight to claims by supporters of faith schools that children often do better because of their religious ethos.

"Pupils' attitudes, behaviour, relations with others, respect for other people and acceptance of the responsibilities of living in a community were excellent or very good in a much greater proportion of RC schools," said the report.

Trinity school, Nottingham, is among the highest-achieving Catholic schools in the country, with 88 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs this summer, even though pupils come from 12 different ethnic groups and are drawn from the city's toughest neighbourhoods.

Mike McKeever, the head, said: "Any claims that schools such as ours are socially selective are nonsense. All our feeder primaries are right in the middle of Nottingham's most deprived estates."

The report recommended that both primary and secondary schools should do more to take account of pupils' views and to strengthen links with other schools and colleges. It also raised concerns about the standard of Catholic school buildings, although church officials blamed rules which require faith groups to contribute 10 per cent of all building work costs.

Details of Quality performance: A survey of education in Catholic schools are at www.cesew.org.uk

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