Statistics produced by the Catholic Education Service suggest that sixth-formers in just over half of the Catholic secondaries in England and Wales have been failing to match national and local A-level points-score averages.
In a sense, the problem is not new. Back in the 1880s it was acknowledged that although younger Catholic school pupils outscored Board school children in reading, writing and arithmetic, they lost the academic lead as they moved into the senior classes.
The phenomenon was also discussed in the 1960s when it was found that Catholic eight-year-olds in inner London had a higher reading score than Church of England pupils but were not capitalising on this early superiority when they went on to secondary school.
The recent plaudits heaped on Catholic secondaries by the Office for Standards in Education may have implied the problem had been remedied. But Dr Andrew Morris, a leading Catholic academic, has pointed out that analyses of the Office for Standards in Education and diocesan inspection reports suggest that A-level standards are less satisfactory.
Dr Morris, secretary to the diocesan schools commission for the Catholic archdiocese of Birmingham, admits the inconsistency between GCSE and A-level is puzzling. But he suggests four possible causes in the latest issue of Educational Studies.
1) If it is the case that positive religious attitudes reinforce positive attitudes to schoolwork, the fact that Catholic teenagers appear to become less religious as they progress through secondary school may have a negative effect on their learning.
2) The more formal teaching approach and "custodial ethos" of Catholic schools may suit younger children but be much less appropriate for meeting the more open-ended demands of A-level courses and engaging the enquiring minds of young adults.
3) Many Catholics are working class and so may have more negative attitudes towards post-16 education.
4) In some parts of the country, such as Birmingham, Catholic sixth-forms are attracting many non-Catholic children who have transferred from non-denominational schools.
Dr Morris accepts that his suppositions are open to challenge and calls for large-scale research on this subject. "If the research is not carried out the position cannot be clarified and future planning for Catholic educational provision and the best teaching methods could be built on little more than gut feelings," he says.
"So far, so good: levels of academic achievement in Catholic schools", by Andrew Morris, Educational Studies, Vol. 24, No.1, published by Carfax, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Dr Morris can be contacted at the Archdiocese of Birmingham, Diocesan Schools Commission, 89 St Bernards Road, Olton, Solihull, West Midlands.