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.

Choice and admissions

One of the main arguments made in favour of faith schools is that they increase diversity and choice by enabling parents to have their children educated according to their own faith tradition. This section points to evidence of the opposite effect. Faith schools restrict school choice for parents who do not share the religion of their local school. Some parents are left with little option but a faith school, while others face restricted access to local schools through the use of unfair admissions procedures. Some critics have also seriously questioned the consumerist framing of school issues around choice.

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School Places: A Fair Choice? School Choice, Inequality and Options for Reform of School Admissions in England

S. Burgess, E. Greaves and A. Vignoles (February 2020), The Sutton Trust.

This report examines the admissions process for schools in England and argues that faith schools are frequently among the most socially selective schools, partly due to the complex faith criteria that they use. It finds evidence showing that faith schools enrol pupils who are both more socio-economically advantaged and have higher ability than pupils in the neighbourhood around the school. Although the authors do not call for the abolition of faith-based criteria, they do promote simplified criteria, using a binary measure of religious observance, combined with measures of physical distance and random ballots, to make the process more straightforward and reduce barriers to entry.

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

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.

The importance of adjusting for pupil background in school value added models

A study of Progress 8 and school accountability in England. G. Leckie and H. Goldstein (2019), British Educational Research Journal, 45(3): 518–537.

This paper uses Progress 8 scores to assess the extent to which schools aid the progress of their pupils. It finds that 'pupils in religious schools typically make more progress than those in schools with no religious character', with Muslim, Sikh and Jewish schools showing an especially high level of progress. However, when using Adjusted Progress 8 scores designed to account for age, gender, ethnicity, language status, special educational needs, eligibility for free school meals and deprivation, 'the results for these schools change markedly'. The authors observe that for faith schools, 'high average pupil progress reduces substantially once the educationally advantaged nature of their pupils is taken into account'.

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

Selective Comprehensives Great Britain: Access to top performing schools for disadvantaged pupils in Scotland, Wales and England

J. Van den Brande, J. Hillary and C. Cullinane (March 2019), The Sutton Trust.

This report builds on earlier work by the Sutton Trust examining socio-economic inequalities within the education system. It finds that faith schools are traditionally associated with strong academic performance and are over-represented among the group of top-rated schools, but that they also consistently under-represent the rates of disadvantage in their catchment areas.

The report shows that, in England, 20% of all comprehensives are faith schools, but 33% of the top-performing comprehensives are faith schools. In Wales, the figures are 13% and 9%. In Scotland, the figures are equal, at 15% each. The report also observes that faith schools have a considerable gap between their intakes of pupils eligible for free school meals compared to the levels in their catchment areas. In England there is a gap of 6% between the free school meals rate in the catchment areas of faith schools compared to their actual intake. In Wales, the gap rises to 10%. The gap in Scotland (where secondary denominational schools are restricted to Roman Catholic schools) is around 2%.

The authors offer several reasons to explain this gap. They include the admissions policies of the school, difficulties in accessing the school (e.g. low income families might lack private transport, which can be a barrier especially in parts of Scotland and Wales), differences between the faith of the school and the faith of the disadvantaged families living in the catchment area, and the willingness and ability of parents of higher socio-economic backgrounds to navigate complex admissions rules. While the authors note that: 'We cannot tell conclusively from our data analysis why this FSM gap exists for faith schools', the report nevertheless finds that faith schools 'are among the most socially selective of schools' and recommends that: 'The admissions process for faith schools should be opened up so that their admissions are fairer, and reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos'.

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

The choice delusion: how faith schools restrict primary school choice in England

National Secular Society (2018).

This report highlights the lack of accessible non-faith schools for parents that desire them, as well as the restrictive and discriminatory admissions rules at faith schools. It shows that faith schools limit primary school choice for parents who do not want a faith-based education for their children, or do not share the faith of a particular school in their area.

The research finds that almost three in ten families across England live in areas 'where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools'. This problem is particularly acute in rural areas. In 43.4% of rural areas, restrictions on non-faith school choice are categorised as 'high' or 'extreme', and 53% of rural primary schools are faith-based. The report also shows that 20.6% of pupils who missed out on their first choice of a non-faith primary school in September 2018 were assigned a faith school.

These findings have significant implications. They show that faith schools do not respect the desires of parents who do not wish for their children to receive a religious education and also highlight issues around indoctrination and discrimination. As the report puts it:

'A school environment which either indoctrinates, inculcates or immerses children in a religious worldview intrinsically preferences the needs of those who share this worldview, and to a greater or lesser extent fails those who do not… By directing the child towards a religious worldview, such schools provide an environment in which the child's choice – their right to develop their own beliefs is to a greater or lesser degree restricted'.

The report recommends that the Department for Education monitor faith-based restrictions on school choice and suitability across England, calls on local authorities to identify areas of particular faith-based restrictions on school choice and suitability, and argues that faith-based discrimination in admissions should be phased out, starting with all new schools and academies and extending to all state schools over a reasonable period.

A PDF copy of this report, along with updated figures for 2019 and 2020, is available to download. Click here to access.

Non-Religious Need Not Apply

Humanists UK (2018).

This report analyses the admissions policies of all 637 secondary state schools with a religious character in England (focusing on the published admissions arrangements for the 2019/2020 academic year). The report finds that 40% of all state faith secondary schools in England discriminate against non-religious families by prioritising religious families over those who are non-religious, and that 60% of Catholic state secondary schools discriminate against the non-religious specifically (a figure that is significantly higher than all other school types). The report also finds that a quarter of Church of England state secondary schools prioritise children from different faiths over those from families who are non-religious, that a fifth of Muslim schools and one in six Jewish schools discriminate against the non-religious specifically, and that 5% of 'other Christian' schools discriminate against the non-religious in their admission arrangements. No state-funded Hindu or Sikh schools single out the non-religious in this way.

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

Parent Power 2018: How parents use financial and cultural resources to boost their children’s chances of success

R. Montacute and C. Cullinane (September 2018), The Sutton Trust.

This report, published by the Sutton Trust, is the follow-up to a previous Parent Power report, published in 2013. Focusing on the ability of parents to use their cultural and material resources in order to exert influence within the education system, it highlights wide inequalities and shows how parents with experience, networks and financial resources are at a considerable advantage. Although the report focuses on the education system in a general sense, it touches on the inequalities prevalent in the faith schools admissions process. The report points out that 31% of parents attended church services specifically to get their child into a religious school but just 16% of adults approve of parents getting involved in local religious activities in order to help their children into a high-performing faith school.

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

Secondary school choice and selection: Insights from new national preferences data

M. Wheldon (August 2018), Research report, Government Social Research, Department for Education.

This report uses data from the secondary schools admissions process to examine the ways in which parents' decision-making when choosing schools, and their experience of gaining admission to chosen schools, differs in different English cities, and for different demographic groups within those cities. The analysis provides evidence that disadvantaged and minority ethnic pupils appear to be less likely to be admitted into own-admissions authority schools, and particularly faith schools.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download from the institutional repository at University of Central London. Click here to access.

New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools

C. Clarke and L. Woodhead (July 2018), Westminster Faith Debates.

This report updates an earlier Westminster Faith Debates report from 2015. It restates many of the previous conclusions but makes a variety of new recommendations. The authors claim that 'faith schools have an important place in our society and school system' and that the goal of government policy 'should be to help faith schools to flourish, in a way that promotes a tolerant and inclusive society which is well informed about religion and belief'. A number of critical areas are also highlighted. The authors restate their earlier view that 'the country needs to move strongly in the direction of reducing the number of schools … which include faith as a criterion for admission', and claim that, while it is 'entirely appropriate' for faith schools to 'have their own ethos', there is 'no reason at all' why this should depend on selection criteria. They also note that employment policies have in some cases 'led to injustice' (although 'in principle' they claim that 'it is reasonable to employ some people who understand and accept the religion in the school in which they teach').

The report makes a variety of recommendations. These include requiring faith schools to promote inclusivity, developing closer relationships between schools and local faith communities, establishing twinning arrangements with schools not of their faith and 'placing an independent member or director who has a different religion or belief on the governing body'. The report also recommends that the use of faith as an admission criterion should be reduced and that employment practices be kept 'under review, given legitimate concerns about their necessity and their effects'.

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

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