Faith schools: the evidence

Over a third of schools in Britain are faith schools, yet their place within public education systems remains deeply contested.

Proponents of faith schools claim that they improve parental choice, achieve superior educational outcomes, and are better at promoting moral values. The evidence from the research strongly contests these claims.

Such research is often piecemeal and difficult to access, making it hard to gain a comprehensive view of the debate. This research bank is intended as a valuable resource for policymakers, politicians, academics and anyone else interested in the ongoing debate around faith schools in Britain.

Each entry provides an at-a-glance overview of the key evidence and central arguments made in a different study. The research bank is arranged chronologically within a number of key sections: social cohesion; performance; school choice; values; and public opinion.

Together, the evidence provides a compelling and comprehensive case against state-funded faith schools.

Social cohesion

The evidence in this section shows that faith schools undermine social cohesion by segregating pupils on religious, ethnic, racial and social grounds. By reducing contact between people from different social groups, faith schools foster exclusionary in-group dynamics that are detrimental to the wellbeing of a liberal, multicultural society. This evidence strongly undermines claims by supporters that faith schools facilitate social integration, promote a communal religious ethos and help to integrate minority faiths into the life of the nation.

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Jewish schools rather than Jewish education?

School choice and community dynamics in multicultural society, M. G. M. Samson (2020), Social & Cultural Geography, 21(2): 222–244.

This study aims to understand the influences behind parents' decisions to send their children to Jewish schools. The paper highlights a tension experienced by Jewish parents between a desire for their children to be educated with a community of 'peers' and the segregation that might result. The study is based on the Jewish Community Secondary School (described as England's only pluralist Jewish secondary school) and finds that, in order to justify their choice of separate schooling, parents have constructed a desirable notion of 'Jewishness' that coalesced their two main selection criteria: academic standards and the presence of other Jewish students. These dynamics intimate a desire amongst Jewish parents to define multiculturalism on their own terms, enabling them to ensure that their children receive a perceived excellent education, are socialised among 'like-minded' peers and away from the adverse influence of the 'other', whilst supposedly remaining open to extra-cultural activities outside.

The paper finds that identity issues were a significant factor in the choice of school. As the author writes: 'identity construction, however this is conceptualized, generally represents an important goal', and parents often overlooked other local schools to find a more 'comfortable' school environment, invariably defining this in terms of a shared 'Jewishness', a decision that, they believed, enabled their children (and possibly also themselves) to become part of a specifically Jewish Community'. Thus, 'parents regularly perceived that their children enjoyed commonalities with other Jewish children by virtue of their Jewishness, whereas other values (including, for instance, interests, national identity or academic ability) were not viewed as sufficiently unifying'.

It was also noted that: 'parents were simultaneously concerned that by attending a Jewish school, their children would become separated from other cultures and faiths', and 'would thus be unable to interact meaningfully with people from other backgrounds'. This, in turn, 'would jeopardize their development of broader liberal values of tolerance and respect for difference'. Nevertheless, for most parents 'the precedence of academic concerns ultimately justified the decision to overlook any ambivalence towards faith schooling'.

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Education policies and teacher deployment in Northern Ireland:

Ethnic separation, cultural encapsulation and community cross-over, M. Milliken, J. Bates and A. Smith (2019), British Journal of Educational Studies, (no issue at time of writing).

This research examines sectarian divisions in the Northern Ireland education system and the impact that this has had upon teachers. In particular, the study tries to assess the extent to which 'the deployment of teachers in mainstream schools in Northern Ireland reflects the enduring community divide'. The paper shows how a number of legal and cultural barriers restrict teachers' ability to move across and between the divided school sector. The authors note, for example, that: 'The recruitment of teachers is excepted from fair employment legislation' and that they are 'legally entitled to use religious belief as grounds on which to discriminate between candidates for teaching posts'.

Drawing on data drawn from an online survey of 1,015 teachers, the study finds high levels of 'cultural encapsulation', meaning that 'divided schools are staffed, on the whole, by a community consistent workforce of teachers – i.e. that Catholic teachers were generally employed in the Maintained and Catholic grammar sectors and Protestant teachers in Controlled schools and non-denominational grammars'. The authors note that 'as many as half of the teachers employed have had little or no professional engagement across the community divide; they have remained community consistent throughout their entire education and career'. Thus, while 'education has been identified as a key mechanism for reconciliation in NI', the cultural divisions between teachers limit their ability to engage in divisive issues.

Although this study focuses on the unique conditions in Northern Ireland, it nevertheless highlights an important and neglected issue within the debate around faith schools: namely, the extent to which employment barriers and cultural expectations can limit the career possibilities of teachers and constrain their ability to perform effectively in their role as educators.

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Queer religious youth in faith and community schools

Y. Taylor and K. Cuthbert (2019), Educational Review, 71(3): 382–396.

This article offers a qualitative exploration of both "faith" and "community" school experiences of queer religious youth in England. This is timely given the UK government's allocation of funding to the charities Stonewall and Barnardo's for tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (HBT) in faith schools, in apparent recognition of these sites as particularly problematic. This occurs amidst wider concerns over 'British values' and the increasing mobilisation of 'sexual orientation equality' rhetoric as part of these discourses. Recent political discourses of 'British values' has meant government support for faith schools now exists uneasily alongside the commitment to gender and sexualities equality.

Whilst faith schools have been continuously exempted from statutory sex education, a number of faith schools have failed Ofsted inspections on the grounds of their inadequate handling of gender and sexualities equality. For example, a recent Ofsted report on a failed Jewish girls' school stated that: 'pupils are not taught explicitly about issues such as sexual orientation ... as a result, pupils are not able to gain a full understanding of fundamental British values'.

The paper cautions against reductionist assumptions that faith schools are particular places of risk or danger for queer youth (noting that faith schools are not monolithic) but highlights a recent Stonewall Schools Report, indicating that LGBT pupils in faith schools are less likely than their peers in non-faith schools to report issues around bullying, more likely to say that school staff never challenge HBT language, and less likely to learn about safe sex in relation to same-sex relationships. They also report that LGBT pupils of faith are more likely to have attempted suicide.

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A PDF copy of this paper is also available from the University of Strathclyde institutional repository. Click here to access.

Promoting Ethnic and Religious Integration in Schools: A Review of Evidence

C. Manzoni and H. Rolfe (April 2019), National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

This report provides a review of the research on promoting religious and ethnic integration in educational settings. It finds strong evidence that parental choice works to increase segregation by social class, religion and ethnicity. Highlighting the positive effects of contact between pupils of different ethnic and faith groups, the report points to evidence that 'faith schools contribute to segregation both through 'reducing diversity of their intake' and ' also through impacting on the diversity of neighbouring schools'. The review strongly recommends greater control and inspection of school admissions policies and practices, and calls for ballots and banding systems to be given consideration, noting that these systems aim to achieve a more comprehensive intake.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download. Click here to access.

‘Religious citizenship in schools in England and Wales: responses to growing diversity E, Hailwood, P. Hemming, (2018), A. Peterson, G. Stahl & H. Soong (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Citizenship and Education, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

The paper presents data from the Office for National Statistics showing a significant decline in Christianity, coupled with a rise in non-religious and minority faiths. Questions about how these groups should be provided for in schools have become more common particularly in how they are represented and reflected in schools. One of the many judgements made in these cases have the issue of competing rights and interests at their core and cannot be fully understood without reference to citizenship.

There is a tension evident between respecting Britain's religious heritage through the privileging of Christianity and ensuring fair treatment for minority religious and non-religious groups through a more neutral approach. However, this can be questioned as is it necessary to respect the heritage of Christianity in Britain when so many individuals do not practise it does not have any association with the faith. This is reflected in the over-representation of Christian faith schools and the prioritising of Christianity in RE and collective worship on the one hand, but the requirement to provide for the spiritual and cultural development of all pupils and the role of PSE/PSHE and the inspectorates in valuing the diversity of religion and belief on the other. Schools are then left to find an appropriate path through these competing policy requirements. Furthermore, this supports the argument against faith schools or that community (non-faith) schools would be better to accommodate children by providing them with an education that is not reflective of solely one community or set of beliefs. This is important to give children a positive and diverse mindset in which they can flourish and mix with other children from different backgrounds.

Faith in schools

T. Hannay (29 November 2018), SchoolDash.

This blog post for SchoolDash examines the numbers and distribution of faith schools in England, as well as their academic performance and effects on segregation. It finds that: 'Faith schools tend to show better academic results at both primary and secondary phases, but these effects vary by faith type and seem to be mainly a result of differences in intake rather than anything that goes on inside the schools themselves'. It also notes that: 'Many types of faith school show higher levels of segregation than non-faith schools, not only with respect to ethnicity but also deprivation'.

Assessing schools by the proportion achieving expect standards in reading, writing and maths at age 11 finds that Church of England primary schools scored three percentage points higher than non-faith primary schools. The author claims that this difference is accounted for by differential intakes of pupils eligible for free school meals, those with special educational needs and those having English as an additional language. Once these differentials are equalised, Church of England schools 'do slightly worse than similar non-faith schools, though the difference is so small that we can reasonably declare it a score draw'. A similar comparison for Catholic primary schools finds a bigger gap. The proportion of Catholic schools achieving expected education outcomes is almost six percentage points higher than non-faith schools, with just over half of this gap being explained by the above differentials. Non-Christian faith schools showed a gap of nearly ten percentage points, although 'most of this seems to be attributable to intake'. Other Christian schools were found to underperform by more than two percentage points after controlling for intake. The author concludes that 'faith-based primary schools do tend to show better results than non-faith schools, but this varies by faith type and where there is a positive effect it seems to be mainly a result of the pupils they attract rather than anything that goes on inside the school itself'.

Secondary school performance is assessed according to the Department for Education's "Attainment 8" measure, which looks at absolute GCSE performance. This also shows that Church of England schools do slightly better than non-faith schools (by 1.8%) although this falls to 1% once intake is accounted for. Again, Catholic schools show a bigger gap (at 2.8%) but this falls to 0.7% once the factors around intake are equalised. Other Christian schools have a higher performance level of 3.7%, falling to 2.9% once intake is controlled for, and non-Christian faith schools show the biggest gap in attainment, at 10.8%, but this falls to 3.2% once intake is accounted for.

Assessing secondary school performance by the "Progress 8" score, which measures the progress of pupils between the ages of 11 and 16 produces similar results to the Attainment 8 measure. Here, Church of England and Catholic schools have a slight advantage compared to non-faith schools, although this is halved once intake is controlled for. Other Christian schools have a small advantage after controlling for intake, and non-Christian faith schools show a substantial advantage, half of which is attributable to intake.

The author notes that, overall, the supposed academic benefit of faith schools 'is largely a mirage caused by differential pupil intakes'.

In terms of socio-economic segregation, the data for intake of pupils eligible for free school meals show that, when compared to neighbouring schools, Catholic and non-Christian faith schools have higher levels of segregation at primary school level (tending to be 'biased towards more affluent families'). At secondary school level, the author notes that: 'all faith school types show greater segregation than non-faith schools, though other Christian schools and non-Christian faith schools show the highest levels. Here, too, they tend to attract more affluent families. Overall, non-Christian faith schools are about twice as likely to be socioeconomically segregated as non-faith schools'.

Performing a similar analysis for levels of segregation by ethnicity finds that Catholic and non-Christian faith schools are the most segregated at both primary and secondary school levels. The author notes that: 'Across both primary and secondary phases, non-Christian faith schools are about three times as likely to be ethnically segregated as non-faith schools'. Church of England schools were found to have a similar profile to non-faith schools. Other Christian schools were found to be more likely than average to be in balance with their local communities.

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Secondary school admissions in London 2001 to 2015: compliance, complexity and control. West, Anne and Hind, Audrey (2016), Clare Market Papers, 20. London School of Economics and Political Science.

The authors present an analysis of London secondary schools' admissions between 2001 and 2015, at a local and individual school level. Some schools that are responsible for their admissions – especially those with a religious character (faith schools) but some academies with no religious character – have complex arrangements; the complexity is compounded when looked at across an area, with a high number of admissions criteria, categories of places, and combinations of different arrangements (including banding, random allocation and partial selection by aptitude)

The authors find that whilst compliance is high as far as certain admissions arrangements are concerned (e.g., prioritising looking after children and not interviewing pupils or parents), problems remain. In particular, some admissions arrangements are complex and there is a concern that with increasing academisation and more schools controlling their admissions, there will be greater complexity in admissions and further issues will arise. The complexity raises concerns that schools are choosing pupils rather than parents choosing schools for their children, which is too commonly the case with faith-based schools.

The paper highlights that schools in an area, facilitated by the local authority, should agree on the best way to ensure 'fair accesses to all schools especially for children from disadvantaged families. This includes the following suggestions presented by the authors. The government should provide additional templates of admissions arrangements to assist with establishing a genuine level playing field across an area. These could be used to decide the most appropriate combinations across the area to ensure access to schools for all children and, in addition, equitable access across different social groups. This would help with individuals who live near a faith-based school but are struggling to get their child a place there because they do not practice the faith which is being carried out. With greater diversity and exposure to different ways of life and culture, this would then contribute to the phasing out of faith schools.

No schools should carry out their admissions – that is, decide if applicants meet the admissions criteria – as the incentives for schools to 'choose' the most desirable pupils are great given the quasi-market that is in operation. Opportunities to 'select in' and 'select out' are particularly great when parents where parents and families are 'known' to the school. Allocations to schools should be made according to published admissions criteria and administered by an independent body. Often the case, the parents who are known to the school are middle-class parents who possess great social and cultural capital and use this to their advantage.

Academically there should be mixed intakes – there is a strong argument for groups of schools to work collaboratively with local authorities to ensure this, with areawide banding being incentivised

A PDF copy of this report is available to download Click here for the journal

Faith schools, community engagement and social cohesion: A rural perspective

P. J. Hemming (2018), Sociologia Ruralis, 58(4): 805–824.

This article notes that much of the debate around faith schools and social cohesion has taken place in an urban setting, although much of the faith-based sector in England and Wales consists of rural, Anglican primary schools. To address this gap, the study involved an in-depth case study of two rural Anglican primary schools, drawing on qualitative data from staff, pupils, parents and local villagers. The article is generally positive towards faith schools, noting that both schools had made efforts to engage with their local communities and were therefore a source of social capital, but also found that rural faith schools could 'erode social cohesion in certain circumstances'. One example of this was the way in which faith schools could draw in pupils from beyond the local area. Here, the author notes: 'the disruption to close-knit communities and village character that can stem from commuters and newcomers coming from outside of the local area in order to take advantage of school provision'.

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A PDF copy of this paper can be downloaded from the institutional repository at the University of Brighton. Click here to access.

Influence of segregation versus mixing

Intergroup contact and attitudes among White-British and Asian-British students in high schools in Oldham, England, M. Hewstone et al. (2018), Theory and Research in Education, 16(2): 179–203.

This paper reports on three longitudinal studies into the extent, quality and consequences of intergroup contact between young Asian-British and white-British secondary school students in Oldham. It highlights the fact that schools are a particularly important setting for mixing between ethnic, religious and other social groups, and provides robust support for the 'contact hypothesis' – the idea that 'positive face-to-face contact between members of different groups, rather than mere coexistence, helps to reduce prejudice and improve intergroup relations'. The study shows that mixing promotes intergroup contact and improves attitudes and trust towards the outgroup. While the study does not overtly examine the 'relative merits or demerits of faith schools per se', the authors note that faith schools, 'when highly segregated, deprive young people of valuable opportunities to mix with ethnic counterparts in a safe, cooperative setting, and thus appear likely to impede social cohesion and prevent young people from developing more positive attitudes towards members of ethnic and religious outgroups'. The authors note that their findings 'suggest that faith schools, to the extent that they involve high levels of segregation, are a barrier to integration, even if they might achieve other positive goals for their students from religious and ethnic minorities'.

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A PDF copy of this paper is also available through ResearchGate. Click here to access.

Integrating Northern Ireland: Cross-group friendships in integrated and mixed schools

D. Blayloc et al. (2018), British Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 643–662.

This study focused on Northern Ireland, where more than 92% of pupils attend schools that are divided on religious lines, and compared pupils attending religious and integrated schools. The study found that for 'in school' interactions and friendships, pupils attending a school with a strong religious (in this case Catholic) ethos had a greater tendency for same-group friendships than pupils attending integrated schools, who instead showed a greater tendency towards cross-group interactions.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the institutional repository at the University of Oxford. Click here to access.