MYTHS that Catholic schools sustain bigotry and sectarianism will eventually be discredited by reason and research, Gerald Grace, of the Institute of Education at London University, told heads.
Professor Grace accused critics of ignorance. The reality was that Catholic schools were about much more than education for Catholics. Many non-Catholic parents sent their children to them and it was their best advertisement.
"You have children of different social class groups, different ability levels, different ethnic groups and different faith groups. There should be national figures for Scotland which demonstrate conclusively that the schools are serving a wide constituency and not simply the narrow constituency of Catholics," Professor Grace said.
Catholic schools had opened their doors after the 1977 Vatican statement on contemporary Catholic education and there was now strong evidence across the world of its benefits in raising attainment, most notably for the disadvantaged.
Professor Grace said that in the US, which has the largest body of research evidence on Catholic schools, students performed better than those in neighbouring public schools, even when many were from single-parent families and more than half were not Catholics.
Similarly, Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, a self-confessed "protestant atheist", had shown that Scottish Catholic schools were able to overcome disadvantage because of what he labelled their "social capital".
Professor Grace asked: "How do Catholic high schools manage simultaneously to achieve relatively high levels of student learning, distribute this learning more equitably with regard to race and class than in the public sector and sustain high levels of teacher commitment and student engagement?
"Schools have a differential capacity for getting students engaged. They want to be there, like being there and are not alienated," he said of evidence from the US.
Researchers identified key factors, including a strong learning culture with a focus on books, a strong sense of community (internal and external) and a strong sense of purpose and drive with a commitment to social justice.
Professor Grace's own study of 60 Catholic secondaries in London, Birmingham and Liverpool had shown that the schools were offering valuable educational services to inner-city and deprived working-class communities.
In a sniping aside, he challenged St Aloysius College in Glasgow, the Jesuit-run independent school that is popular with middle-class Catholics, to justify its role in contemporary Catholic education with its focus on social justice.