The Catholic Church’s data on social selection in its schools was debunked over a decade ago

30 May, 2024

The Catholic Education Service (CES) claims that Catholic schools educate more pupils from deprived backgrounds than other state schools. However, this claim is based on flawed data.

Before calling an election, the Government announced that it intended to lift the 50% cap on faith school admissions that exist for free schools. The Catholic Education Service (CES) responded by saying ‘Catholic education… educates more pupils from the most deprived backgrounds.’ Similarly the CES put out a press release in March claiming that ‘Catholic schools educate 50% more of the most deprived pupils than the state.’ But it is well known that Catholic schools take fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than their local areas, or than the national average – with free school meal eligibility being the most common measure of how socially selective a school is. So how can the CES claim be true? The answer is that it isn’t.

Flawed data

The first thing to note is that the CES isn’t using free school meal eligibility but something called the ‘Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index’ or IDACI for short. This measures how deprived the areas are that children live in. That works by looking at their postcodes. The CES then likes to look at the 10% most deprived postcodes in the country. From that we see that 50% more children at Catholic schools come from those postcodes than in other state schools.

There are several problems with this. The first is that IDACI simply doesn’t measure how deprived pupils are, just how deprived their areas are. This makes it an inferior measurement when compared to free school meal eligibility, which does actually measure how deprived pupils are. That’s why everyone else prefers free school meals as a measure. The CES appears to be the only group that doesn’t – is it a coincidence that it prefers the less good measure where its figures look better than the better measure where its figures look worse?

The second problem with IDACI, at least as the CES uses it, is that it fails to account for the locations of the schools. If the schools are more likely to be in cities, then of course they’re more likely to take pupils from deprived areas. So what you need to do then is look at how deprived the locations of the schools are.

A decade ago, in May 2014, we did exactly that. What we found was that actually Catholic schools are even more likely still to be in the most deprived areas than what their own pupil figures suggest – i.e. the IDACI figures show Catholic schools are under-admitting the deprived pupils in the most deprived areas. This is particularly true at primary level – and secondary level the picture is a bit less clear. This is therefore contrary to what the CES is claiming.

Catholic schools haven’t physically moved in the decade since the previous analysis, and the latest IDACI pupil figures the CES have published look pretty much the same as their figures from a decade ago. So if the analysis was repeated today, then the same thing would no doubt show up.

Free school meal eligibility

Another thing the CES sometimes likes to claim is that free school meal eligibility comparisons between different schools and their local areas look at too narrow a local area, as Catholic schools have wider catchment areas than other schools. No doubt they do have wider catchments, targeted as they are at just the 10% proportion of the population that are Catholics.

But again this claim doesn’t add up. In 2015, we compared Catholic secondary schools not just to their immediate areas but also to their local authorities, their neighbouring local authorities, their regions, and England as a whole. Our findings were stark: Catholic schools admitted 28% fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than are in their immediate local areas; 29% than their local authorities; 24% than their neighbouring local authorities; 22% than their government office regions; and 13% than across England as a whole. So looking too closely is clearly not why Catholic schools have too few pupils eligible for free school meals. Again, there’s no evidence that anything has changed since this analysis was done.


It now seems likely that the consultation on lifting the 50% cap will be dropped due to the general election being called. Perhaps, with that, it’s time for the CES to also finally drop its disingenuous claims about pupil intake.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 07534 248 596.

Read our response to the decision to scrap the 50% cap.

Read Humanists UK’s recent explainer on the cap.

Read more about our work on faith schools

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