CATHOLIC SCHOOLS are the most striking educational success story of the century, secondary heads were told last week.
In a searching analysis of Catholic education, Lindsay Paterson of Moray House Institute of Education, who jokingly referred to himself as a "Protestant atheist", said research proved that denominational secondaries did more to promote the attainment of working-class pupils.
Professor Paterson said that based on evidence in the early 1980s, "if you look at working-class pupils with two or more Highers, the proportion going to higher education was 52 per cent from Catholic schools, but only 42 per cent from other schools.
"What is more, the social-class gap in attainment was smaller in Catholic schools than in others. In other words, Catholic schools were more egalitarian."
By the 1990s, overall attainment in Catholic schools had matched that in other schools, even without taking account of social factors. A higher proportion of leavers said school was worth while.
Before comprehensive education, the proportions of children from working-class backgrounds who were entering middle-class jobs was 46 per cent for non-Catholics and 30 per cent for Catholics. By 1997, the proportions were about 50 per cent for both.
"In short, Catholic schools have been a classic instance of education's capacity to integrate socially excluded groups into the mainstream," Professor Paterson stated.
He said that Catholic schools were powerful builders of "social capital" and their communities were infused with norms that expected high achievement. Researchers had shown parents tended to know each other and be known by officers of the church. Each pupil was surrounded outside school by a network of expectations and sanctions, encouraging achievement and discouraging disaffection.
There is "no evidence" that denominational schools are socially divisive and foster bigotry and sectarianism, Professor Paterson said. Catholic teachers believed that society works best if people respect and trust each other and that it may work best of all if these values are embodied in enduring civic institutions such as the welfare state.