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FactCheck: Are Catholic schools more socially diverse than other schools?

FactCheck referees a dispute between representatives of the Iona Institute and Educate Together.


Updated: 24 March

This FactCheck originally carried the verdict ‘Mostly FALSE’ – this has been changed to Mostly TRUE. For changes, see our Corrections page

DURING A DEBATE last month on school enrolment policies and the religious ethos of schools, there was a robust dispute over the diversity of pupils at Catholic and other types of primary schools.

On RTE’s Claire Byrne Live, Iona Institute spokesperson Maria Steen said Catholic schools were more socially diverse, citing research about the proportion of pupils from lone-parent families, less affluent households, and from the Traveller community.

On Twitter, Seán McCormack and DougalCMK brought the dispute to our attention, so we decided to step in and try to resolve it.

(Send your FactCheck requests to, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim: Catholic primary schools are more socially diverse than other kinds of primary schools

What was said: / YouTube

You can watch a short video of the disagreement on Claire Byrne Live, above, and you can check out the full episode here.

Here’s the claim made by Maria Steen, of the Christian think tank and advocacy group the Iona Institute:

According to an ESRI report that was done in conjunction with Educate Together schools, there is much more likely to be greater diversity among Catholic schools than among minority faith or multi-denominational schools.
Catholic schools have much greater numbers of children, for instance, from lone-parent families. They have greater numbers of children from lower socio-economic groups. Multi-denominational schools tend, typically, to be middle class.

A little later on, Steen addressed Educate Together CEO Paul Rowe, who was in the audience and had disagreed with her analysis:

This is directly from your survey, that you have published: “Most multi-denominational schools did not have any traveller pupils. Catholic schools were more likely to have greater numbers of traveller pupils compared to minority faith schools”. That’s from your report.

Before publication, Maria Steen clarified that her claim of diversity was specifically about children from lone-parent families, children from the Traveller community, and children from lower socioeconomic groups.

The Facts

The report Maria Steen cited on Claire Byrne Live, and which she highlighted in response to FactCheck’s request for evidence, is School Sector Variation Among Primary Schools in Ireland.

It was published in 2012, based on data gathered in 2007 and 2008, it was written by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), and funded by Educate Together.

Among many other findings, the report compared the religious, socioeconomic, travelling community, and other backgrounds of pupils at three primary school types: Catholic; multi-denominational (mostly Educate Together); and minority faith schools (Church of Ireland, Jewish and Muslim).

Given Maria Steen’s clarification, we’re focusing here on socioeconomic diversity, specifically children from lone-parent families, and children from the Traveller community, but we’ll also take a look at the other measures of diversity mentioned in the report, for overall context.

Socioeconomic diversity

Screen Shot 2017-03-03 at 11.02.25 ESRI / Educate Together ESRI / Educate Together / Educate Together

  • Children whose parents or guardians worked in the professional, managerial or technical sectors made up 46% of Catholic school students; 65% of multi-denominational school students, and 69% of minority faith school pupils
  • Children whose family income was in the top quintile (top 20%) made up 19% of Catholic school pupils; 33% of  minority faith school pupils; and 49% of multi-denominational school pupils
  • Children whose mother had degree-level qualifications made up 16% of Catholic school pupils; 36% of minority faith school pupils; and 42% of multi-denominational school pupils
  • Children from a lone-parent family background made up 18% of Catholic school pupils; 15% of multi-denominational school pupils; and 9% of minority faith school pupils

So there is a clear pattern here – Catholic school pupils had a greater tendency to be from less affluent and lower socio-economic backgrounds, and there was greater socio-economic diversity among pupils at Catholic primary schools.

Furthermore, a higher percentage of Catholic school students came from a lone-parent family than students from other types of schools (18% as opposed to 15% and 9%).

Recent evidence

Provisional Department of Education figures for the 2016/17 provide a list of primary schools that are designated DEIS schools.

DEIS schools are schools in traditionally disadvantaged areas marked by high rates of unemployment, lone-parent families, social housing and Traveller residency, so they represent a rough proxy for socioeconomic diversity among different school types.

Our analysis of the data (spreadsheet download) shows:

  • 21.8% of Catholic primary schools are DEIS schools
  • 15.1% of multi-denominational schools (not just Educate Together) are DEIS schools
  • 6.7% of minority faith schools are DEIS schools.

This evidence weighs in favour of Maria Steen’s claim. However, the Department of Education data also shows that:

  • 20.1% of multi-denominational school pupils are in DEIS schools
  • 19.6% of Catholic school pupils are in DEIS schools
  • 3.7% of minority faith school pupils are in DEIS schools.

This evidence weighs against Maria Steen’s claim.
It should be noted that this data is provisional and only a proxy for socioeconomic status, as compared to the extensive and robust (albeit older) research contained in the ESRI report.

Traveller pupils

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-11-04-27 ESRI ESRI

On Claire Byrne Live, Maria Steen correctly quoted from the report as follows:

Most multi-denominational schools did not have any Traveller pupils. Catholic schools were more likely to have greater numbers of Traveller pupils compared to minority faith schools.

The report also says that most schools of all kinds, including Catholic schools, did not have any Traveller pupils, but it does indeed show that Catholic schools had a greater proportion of Traveller pupils than other types of school.

The evidence here favours the conclusion that Catholic primary schools had greater diversity in terms of Traveller students.

Ethnic diversity and migrant communities

This was not one of the measures of diversity specified by Maria Steen, but it’s worth taking a look at with that in mind.

Screen Shot 2017-03-03 at 11.03.42 ESRI / Educate Together ESRI / Educate Together / Educate Together

  • Multi-denominational schools were more likely to have a higher proportion of migrant students than both Catholic and minority faith schools
  • 44% of Catholic primary schools and 41% of minority faith schools had no migrant students at all, compared to around 10% of multi-denominational schools
  • Multi-denominational schools were less likely than Catholic or minority faith schools to have pupils of only one nationality.

Students with disabilities

This was also not one of the measures of diversity stipulated by Maria Steen, but it’s worth seeing what the ESRI report has to say about it.

Screen Shot 2017-03-03 at 11.05.07 ESRI / Educate Together ESRI / Educate Together / Educate Together

  • Multi-denominational schools were least likely to have no students with a physical or sensory disability. Minority faith schools were most likely
  • Catholic schools were most likely to have students with a physical or sensory disability make up more than 5% of the student body
  • All three school types were evenly matched in terms of students with learning difficulties, although a marginally higher percentage of multi-denominational schools had no such students or a number making up less than 5% of the student body.

Religious diversity

This was not part of the claim made by Maria Steen on Claire Byrne Live, but let’s have a look, with that in mind.

  • Among multi-denominational school pupils: 50% were Catholic, 19% were from “other” religions; 30% had no religious affiliation
  • Among minority faith school pupils: 30% were Catholic, and around 70% were from “other religions”
  • Among Catholic school pupils: 90% were Catholic.


Sequence 01.00_00_37_00.Still001 RTE Claire Byrne Live The Iona Institute's Maria Steen RTE Claire Byrne Live

While the 2012 report is perfectly valid in its own right, it comes with a health warning. The figures involved date to 2007/2008, meaning they are a decade old.

For this type of research, it makes it difficult to use them to draw conclusions about the current state of affairs in Irish primary schools.

However, it is still the most recent comprehensive research to systematically compare Catholic, multi-denominational and minority faith schools along these measures of diversity, so it cannot be disregarded.

To summarise: the report contained evidence that Catholic schools had greater socioeconomic diversity, and higher proportions of Traveller students, and students from lone-parent families.

2016/17 Department of Education figures show that a higher percentage of Catholic primary schools are DEIS schools, a designation intended for schools in traditionally socioeconomically underprivileged areas.

The recent figures also show that a higher percentage of multi-denominational school pupils than Catholic school pupils are in DEIS schools.

These figures are more recent than those in the ESRI report, but they are also not comparable to the breadth and comprehensiveness of the ESRI research.

DEIS school status is also only a proxy for socioeconomic status.

On the whole, and with a note of caution regarding the age of the ESRI data, we rate Maria Steen’s claim Mostly TRUE as per our verdicts guide.

This is the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Maria Steen. In future, you’ll be able to find her FactCheck File here

Verdict change: The verdict for this fact check has been changed to Mostly TRUE, having originally been Mostly FALSE. 

After publication, Maria Steen contacted FactCheck with concerns about this article, many of which we agreed with, on reflection. 

She pointed out that pre-publication, Maria Steen had clarified that her claim about diversity was limited to three specific measures of diversity, relating to pupils: from lower socioeconomic groups; lone-parent families; and the Traveller community.

In its original format, this article also insufficiently examined 2016/17 Department of Education data on the proportion of Catholic and multi-denominational schools designated as DEIS schools. 

We re-examined that data, which shows that a greater proportion of Catholic primary schools are DEIS schools, and a comparable proportion of Catholic school pupils and multi-denominational school pupils are in DEIS schools. 

The change of verdict has been added to our Corrections page.’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.

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