When Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, gives his annual report next month, Catholic schools will feature prominently in the "excellent" list.
Last year, out of 65 schools named as "good and improving", 14 were Roman Catholic. Considering that 61 Catholic schools were inspected, compared with more than 700 non-Catholic, the results were significant; this year's annual report reveals a similar pattern. OFSTED research reveals that a Catholic secondary is twice as likely as a non-Catholic school to achieve the "excellent" benchmark.
Few Catholic schools have become grant-maintained; most avow to be strongly comprehensive. "We are intrigued to know why Catholic schools are so popular and why they are so successful in terms of GCSE results," says a member of the Ofsted research team. "There has been a resurgence of interest in the importance of moral values in education. This sector of the school population has been pursuing these ideals for some time and it does seem to have an impact on overall standards and performance in exams."
Ofsted has supported the work of Dr Andrew Morris, secretary to the diocesan schools' commission for the Catholic archdiocese of Birmingham. Dr Morris claims that, though the standard of teaching and management in Catholic secondaries is more or less equal to that found in "county" schools, the nature of the ethos and community produces significantly better results.
In inspection, schools are graded on a number of categories (such as standards, efficiency, ethos and quality) from one to seven; one being the best, seven the worst. Although Catholic schools' lower mean scores across all categories indicates they have the edge, the difference is most noticeable in ethos: 2.51 for Catholic schools, 2.91 for others. When ethos is broken down into further categories - spiritual, moral, attendance, behaviour, community, relationships - the difference is even greater.
Catholic schools score 2.20 on "spiritual" criteria, compared with 4.06 for other schools, and 2.00 for "behaviour" compared with 2.42 for other schools.
Dr Morris states: "In meeting the educational, social and religious needs of their community, Catholic schools seem to accrue a number of advantages, enabling them to be effective.
"These potential benefits appear to include their religious nature, the support of an organised church, the religiosity of pupils and the coherence of the community that they serve.
"The community culture seems to provide effective forms of social control . . . and a strong sense of commitment towards its schools by the Catholic community that has its roots in the historical struggle to create and maintain them."