Catholic Schools and Social Selection – originally printed in The Catholic Universe 25th April 2016

An important piece of research by the Sutton Trust was used last week by the national media to criticise Catholic schools for being socially selective: “Faith schools ‘shunning poor pupils’” Daily Mail 15th April 2016. That the phrase “shunning poor pupils” is presented as a quotation when it is not in the report is an indication of the newspaper’s approach. The use of less partial perspectives by news media would lead to an acknowledgement that the success of Catholic education has led to social selection rather than being a result of it. In continuing a negative narrative about Faith schools, parts of the press seek to undermine a sector whose success militates against far worse forms of social selection and ghettoisation through the housing market. This more common form of social stratification, highlighted in the report’s recommendations, is not referred to in the news reports.  The Sutton Trust Report was timely in that publication came just before parents were notified of the 2016 primary school allocations. The report focusses on social selection across all schools and is a very good piece of empirical research by Dr Rebecca Allen and Dr Meenakshi Parameshwaran who use data to explore the issue and make clear recommendations. Some parts of the national media chose to focus on one aspect of the report in order to imply criticism of all Catholic schools and in doing so presented an inaccurate picture. As the Catholic Education Service (CES) has pointed out, nationally, Catholic schools have a poorer, more diverse intake than the sector. There is no contradiction between the Sutton Trust Report and the CES data. Nationally Catholic schools serve a relatively poor intake yet locally, in some urban areas, the need to apply admissions oversubscription criteria creates indirect social selection.

To provide a less partial picture of Catholic schools’ admissions than that given by the press, it is necessary to consider geographical and historical factors alongside an acknowledgement of the distinctive nature and purpose of the Church’s role in education.

The Sutton Trust report draws a distinction between the situation in some urban areas in England and the rest of the country. London has the highest proportion of socially selective schools with a significant number of Catholic schools in some boroughs having intakes that do not match those living in the local area. As this was not a study of Catholic Education, the difference in definition of local area between Church parish and secular catchment is not considered. The reason why the issue is greater in London is simply because of oversubscription: a greater number of parents chasing a smaller number of places in a small geographical area.

An historical perspective would highlight the success of Catholic education in supporting poor families. You do not have to go back far in time to find Catholic primary schools filled with the children of poor migrant workers for whom they were built. That, two or three generations later, some of those families are in the wealthier London boroughs is a tribute to the sustainable success of Catholic education and should not be confused with the cause of that success.

By continuing to give preference to the children of adults practising the Faith, Catholic schools reflect their purpose of supporting parents in passing on the Faith. The exploration of different conceptions of the fundamental purpose of education was not part of the Sutton Trust research. Media reporting of the research followed the long established pattern of giving no consideration to the fact that Catholic schools were not built solely to achieve good SATs, GCSE or A level results. In the same way, government policy requiring Catholic Free Schools to be 50% non-Catholic shows a lack of understanding and interest in the success of faith education. In a competitive market which includes published league tables, news headlines have no time for the profound underlying links between Faith and learning. To demonstrate that, for a complex set of reasons, Catholic schools achieving comparatively high examination results leads to social selection rather than being caused by it would require a perspective outside of current affairs news coverage. The success of Catholic schools came before their popularity and was driven by the expertise and vocation of well-trained Catholic teachers. Since league tables were introduced in the 1990s, Catholic schools popularity has increased leading to the application of oversubscription criteria for admissions and, as the report demonstrates, social selection in some urban areas. If there were sufficient places in Catholic schools to meet parental demand, there would be no social selection. Having sufficient school places to meet current demand would require a significant increase in the number of Catholic teachers and clergy. The inappropriate application of market forces to education creates demand whilst, at the same time, undermining concepts of Faith, community, vocation and relationship upon which Catholic schools are sustained. The problem for Catholic Schools is that a proportion of the increase in demand is driven by exam results and not by a desire for support in passing on the Faith to children. The problem for the State and parents is that the complex set of factors that lead to academic attainment are tied up in the deep learning processes of a parent handing on their Faith to the child. Overtime, Catholic schools without the practice of Catholicism will not work whether measured by either religious or secular concepts of education. Successive governments’ obsession with the individual consumer in the market place explains the lack of interest in, and understanding of, the reasons why Catholic schools have been successful and are sought after by parents.

Social selection in Catholic schools identified by the Sutton Trust in some urban areas is an indirect consequence of the application of Faith criteria in response to oversubscription. In this context, social selection occurs because willingness to “play the game” is linked to class. Back in the 1990s, my excellent parish priest Fr Ben O’Rourke was in the national press bemoaning the rise in Mass attendance that coincides with the period leading up to admissions to Reception. Since then the situation has developed with recorded increased rates of baptism at the age of three and four. Priests have to ensure that baptisms meet Canon Law requirement of a prior commitment to bringing up the child in the Faith but most headteachers experience parents who stop supporting the Catholic life of the school and parish once the child is in Reception. Faced with a shortfall of places to meet demand from people only seeking good exam results, attempts to distinguish between different levels of commitment by measuring Mass attendance have been seen as contrary to the Admissions Code. This has led to Catholic schools using distance criteria and some practising Catholic families not being able to attend their parish school.

Social selection is contrary to the Catholic worldview and teaching. It is not something either dioceses, parishes or schools have sought. Priests cannot turn people away from a sacramental life if there is any suggestion of a genuine desire for salvation and the schools play a key role in supporting the Faith of children and parents. If it were not for the success of Catholic schools, the number of baptisms and mass attendance would have reduced at a faster rate than has happened. Therefore the Church should not give up on religious selection for schools and the Sutton Trust Report does not recommend that this should happen. The report calls for: all schools to give priority to children who attract pupil premium funding; proper enforcement of the admissions code and simple and consistent religious admissions criteria. All three recommendations should be welcomed and acted on by the Church in the context of Catholic teaching.  

As part of welcoming the Sutton Trust report, the Church should redouble efforts to articulate the distinctive purpose and nature of Catholic education for children, parents, teachers and parishes. The current government are wedded to a market ideology that requires measurement and reporting of narrow knowledge-based tests that dehumanise both children and teachers in ways that should not be part of a Catholic education where value is found in relationship with God not a child’s grades. Although couched in the language of fairness and equality, the admissions system to Reception classes in England and Wales reflects a secular policy approach that promotes parental consumption where, for many, none exists. If religious criteria for admissions is undermined or removed, far more damaging social selection occurs through the housing and services markets with increasing house prices around “successful” schools excluding lower income families. A poor Catholic family has a far greater chance of attending a good school if admissions are based on Faith rather than ability to buy houses within a catchment area. Catholic education should and, in most areas of the country, does militate against social selection in a society with widening inequalities between rich and poor linked to low taxation and underfunded public services.

Catholic primary schools are diverse institutions where children of different cultures and backgrounds mix. Such diversity would not occur if the allocation of Reception places was based solely on distance from schools. Catholic parishes are also diverse and the link to schools is crucial. Sunday Mass in most parishes is a time when people from different backgrounds come together in a way that does not happen in other community events and will never occur in market driven social stratification. It is a time when adults and children share space, words and rituals. It is the only time people do not experience social separation from other people including drug addicts; the vulnerably housed; people from different cultures; people who speak different languages; people far richer than us and people poorer than us. Through their linked work, schools and parish communities do a remarkable job rooted in a deep understanding of what it is to educate and be educated. The social selection, correctly identified in the Sutton Trust report as a feature of some urban Catholic schools, is not sought by the Church and should not detract from her educational mission; nor should the national media’s desire to criticise Catholic education in order to generate a story be allowed to go unchallenged.

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