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.

Performance and selection

A core feature of the debate around faith schools is the claim that they provide better education outcomes than non-faith schools. The evidence in this section shows that any educational advantages for faith schools are small and are explained by factors around pupil intakes, such as religiously selective admissions arrangements, rather than a faith ethos.

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Fairer school admissions: Social segregation in schools: the view from parents & teachers

Research Brief, The Sutton Trust (February 2020).

This research briefing highlights a range of issues around socio-economic segregation and selectivity in the UK education system. It finds that faith schools (along with academies and free schools) are over-represented in the category of selective schools and notes that: 'faith schools are among the most likely to be highly socially selective'. Just 29% of faith schools reported taking the socio-economic composition of their community into account when constructing admissions policies, compared to 32% for converter academies, 34% of sponsored academies and 34% of local authority-controlled schools.

Proportion of teachers reporting their school takes socio-economic makeup of community into account, by school type

Voluntary aided/controlled (faith schools)

Very strongly: 11%

Strongly: 18%

Converter academy

Very strongly: 16%

Strongly: 16%

Sponsored academy

Very strongly: 19%

Strongly: 15%

Local authority controlled

Very strongly: 21%

Strongly: 13%

The briefing shows how senior leaders in faith schools appear to be unaware of these discrepancies. It notes that: 'while 14% of those at faith schools felt they took in lower levels of disadvantage than their local community, 45% perceived that they took in higher levels of disadvantage, despite such schools being the most socially selective in reality'. The report concludes that:

Faith schools are among the most socially selective schools. This arises from the often complex eligibility criteria set out by such schools, which those from more well-off homes may be better equipped and more motivated to navigate. Such complex criteria can often reveal information about the social background of the family to the school and could enable "covert selection".

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

Faith Schools in England: FAQs

R. Long and S. Danechi (20 December 2019), House of Commons Library, Briefing paper #06972.

This document provides an overview of the numbers of faith schools in the UK and discusses a variety of issues around their performance. Data show that faith schools recorded better academic results than non-faith schools. The average Attainment 8 score in mainstream state-funded faith schools in 2018 was 49.6. The figure for non-faith schools was 47.0. A total of 48% of pupils attending faith schools achieved grades 9-5 in English and maths at GCSE level. The figure for non-faith schools was 44%. However, the report also highlights key differences in pupil intakes. Figures show that pupils at faith schools were more likely to have higher levels of prior attainment than pupils at non-faith schools, and that faith schools took a lower proportion of pupils that were eligible for free school meals. As of January 2019, 13% of pupils at state-funded primary faith schools and 13% of state-funded secondary faith schools were eligible for free school meals. This compares to 17% and 14% at non-faith schools.

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

Educational attainment in the short and long term:

Was there an advantage to attending faith, private, and selective schools for pupils in the 1980s? A. Sullivan et al. (2018) Oxford Review of Education 44(6): 806–822.

This paper examines whether faith schools in England and Wales in the 1980s provided an academic advantage to their pupils. Using longitudinal data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, the paper examines the link between school sector and academic outcomes at ages 16, 18 and 42. It finds that any academic advantage from faith schools 'is restricted to the short term' once pupil characteristics such as family background and prior attainment are controlled for.The authors note that: 'faith schools tend to be more socially selective than non-faith schools, and it is not clear that there is a benefit above and beyond the school selectivity effect'.

The paper notes that pupils from faith schools were more likely to obtain higher secondary school and university qualifications compared to students at non-faith schools, but that this advantage disappears once other factors are taken into account. As the authors put it:

In the case of faith schools, only the advantage in examination performance at age 16 is robust to the background controls. The fact that the benefits of faith schools only extended up to age 16 suggests that the practices of these schools were sufficient to raise attainment at age 16, but not to drive up participation and attainment once compulsory participation was over.

Link to journal

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the Oxford Review of Education. Click here to access.

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.

Link to post

Understanding school segregation in England, 2011 to 2016

iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge (2017).

This study, which was carried out by the iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge, draws on the 2016 school census and covers nearly every school in England for which data were available (excluding independent and unregistered schools). The study set out to explore the reasons behind school segregation, to assess whether schools were segregated by socio-economic status and ethnicity and the extent and nature of these trends from 2011 to 2016. The study examined trends in a variety of school types and according to local authority area.

The study finds that faith schools at primary level are more ethnically segregated than non-faith schools, with 28.8% of faith schools being classified in this way compared to 24.5% of non-faith schools. This discrepancy was particularly pronounced for Roman Catholic schools, of which 26.7% have a low proportion of white British students, compared with 9.1% of non-faith schools and 9.9% of all schools. Non-Christian faith schools (though small in number) fared even worse, with 84.5% being segregated. The report found a similar picture at secondary level. Schools of non-Christian faiths were more likely to under-sample white British students, with 64.5% of these schools falling into this category, compared to an average for all schools of 13.4%.

Similar discrepancies were found for intakes of disadvantaged pupils. Just 4.4% of faith schools at primary level were found to have a high intake of pupils eligible for free school meals compared with nearby schools, versus 11.4% for non-faith schools. This was particularly pronounced for Roman Catholic schools (of which 38.3% had a low intake of eligible pupils compared to 17.1% of non-faith schools) and non-Christian faith schools (of which 63.8% had a low intake and none at all had an intake with significantly higher numbers). A similar relationship was found at secondary level. A total of 23.8% of Roman Catholic schools had a low intake of pupils eligible for free school meals, compared with 17.2% of non-faith schools. A total of 43.8% of schools of non-Christian faiths had a low intake, with none having a high intake compared to other schools around them.

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

Segregation in education

T. Hannay (22 March, 2017), SchoolDash.

This blog post for SchoolDash examines issues of ethnic and socio-economic segregation in schools, drawing on data published in a report by the iCoCo Foundation, SchoolDash and The Challenge. A number of factors behind segregation are identified, including house prices and academic selection. Faith schools were found to be a particular site of segregation. The data show that, overall, faith schools have higher levels of ethnic and socio-economic segregation than non-faith schools.

A school was said to be ethnically segregated 'if the proportion of White British pupils is more than 15 percentage points higher or lower than that in other nearby schools'. Breaking these data down for ethnicity shows that Church of England schools had similar levels of segregation to non-faith schools at primary school level, but Roman Catholic schools had higher levels of segregation and a 'substantial bias towards non-White-British pupils' at both primary and secondary school levels. The highest levels of ethnic segregation were found in non-Christian faith schools. The figures below report these findings, by 'low' and 'high' proportions of white British pupils in comparison to other schools in the local area.

Ethnic segregation in primary schools

Low High

Church of England 5.5% 18.3%

Roman Catholic 26.7% 13.9%

Other Christian 5.7% 18.9%

Non-Faith 9.1% 15.4%

All schools 9.9% 16.1%

Ethnic segregation in secondary schools

Low High

Church of England 14.6% 28.8%

Roman Catholic 25.4% 18.5%

Other Christian 14.7% 14.7%

Non-Faith 11.2% 28.4%

All schools 13.4% 27.2%

Faith schools were also found to fare worse in terms of intakes of disadvantaged pupils (as measured by their eligibility for free school meals). The highest discrepancies at primary level were found in Roman Catholic and non-Christian faith schools (both of which took a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than non-faith schools). The highest discrepancies at secondary level were found in Church of England and non-Christian faith schools. The data for free school meals are shown below, reported by comparatively 'low' and 'high' intakes in relation to neighbouring schools.

Socio-economic segregation in primary schools

Low High

Church of England 22.7% 5.1%

Roman Catholic 38.3% 2.3%

Other Christian 19.6% 8.4%

Non-Faith 17.1% 11.4%

All schools 20.8% 8.8%

Socio-economic segregation in secondary schools

Low High

Church of England 27.4% 9.9%

Roman Catholic 23.8% 3.1%

Other Christian 22.7% 14.7%

Non-Faith 17.2% 9.3%

All schools 18.8% 8.8%

Link to post

Faith Schools, Pupil Performance and Social Selection

J. Andrews and R. Johnes (December 2016). Education Policy Institute.

This report looks at the educational performance of faith schools and the social and academic composition of their intakes. Examining raw attainment data and basic value-added data shows that faith schools at both primary and secondary levels tend to produce higher educational outcomes, both in terms of overall attainment and in the progress they make. At Key Stage 2, 83% of pupils in Church of England schools and 85% of pupils in Roman Catholic schools achieved level 4+ in reading writing and mathematics, compared to 81% in non-religious schools. At Key Stage 4, 60.6% of pupils in Church of England schools, and 63.2% of pupils in Roman Catholic schools, achieved five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics. The figure for non-faith secondary schools was 57.4%. Overall, Church of England schools produced results that were one twentieth of a grade higher in each of eight GCSEs. The figure for Catholic schools was one sixth of a grade higher. Other 'non-Christian' faith schools scored around two thirds of a grade higher.

The report goes on to explain that a primary reason for these outcomes is the characteristics of the pupil intake, with faith schools admitting fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Overall, 12.1% of pupils at faith schools are eligible for free school meals at Key Stage 2 and 12.6% are eligible at Key Stage 4, compared to 18.0% and 14.1% for non-faith schools). Faith schools also educate a lower proportion of pupils with special educational needs – 16.8% at Key Stage 2 and 14.4% at Key Stage 4, compared to 19.7% and 16.6% for non-faith schools. Faith schools also enrol a larger proportion of high attaining pupils – 28.4% at Key Stage 2 and 27.4% at Key Stage 4, compared to 23.7% and 24.5% for non-faith schools.

Taking these figures into account, the report notes that once these pupil characteristics are accounted for, the differences between faith and non-faith schools at Key Stage 2 are 'educationally insignificant' and those at Key Stage 4 are 'relatively small', being reduced to just one-seventh of a grade. The authors conclude that, given the socially selective nature of faith schools, 'there is a risk that such small gains would come at the price of increased social segregation, with a risk of lower social mobility'.

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

Can school competition improve standards? The case of faith schools in England

R. Allen and A. Vignoles (2016), Empirical Economics 50: 959–973.

This paper measures the extent to which the presence of religious state-funded secondary schools in England impacts on the educational experiences of pupils who attend neighbouring schools. National administrative data are used to estimate pupil test score growth models between the ages of 11 and 16. The paper finds significant evidence that religious schools are associated with higher levels of pupil sorting across schools, but no evidence that competition from faith schools raises area-wide pupil attainment. The paper maintains that the apparent 'effectiveness' of faith schools is due to within-area sorting based on unmeasured pupil characteristics.

Link to journal

A PDF copy of this paper can be downloaded from the National Centre for Research Methods. Click here to access.

Reducing the attainment gap: good ways and bad

T. Hannay (24 June 2016), SchoolDash.

This post for the SchoolDash blog examines the attainment gap between schools, looking at a range of variables and school types. It measures the attainment gap by the proportion of pupils achieving at least five GCSEs, at A*-C (including English and maths) compared by prior attainment at age 11. Drawing on a range of data sources, including statistics from the Department for Education, the Office for National Statistics and Ofsted, the analysis only found a slight effect in favour of faith schools. The author notes that: 'Faith schools tend to get better results but their effect on the attainment gap, while positive, is generally modest'.

Link to source

(This post has been archived by the Wayback Machine.)

Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good

Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, The Woolf Institute, Cambridge (December 2015).

This report by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life makes a variety of recommendations about public policy towards the role of faith in the public square. On the subject of faith schools, it calls for reform of the admissions and inspections processes. The report notes that: 'Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character ("faith schools") should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion'. On the issue of inspections, the report called on state inspectorates 'to be concerned with every aspect of the life of faith schools, including religious elements currently inspected by denominational authorities'.

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