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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No Room at the Inn

Humanists UK (2017).

This report from Humanists UK publishes the findings of a study into the admissions policies of all 210 Church of England secondary schools listed on the government's register of schools in England. It notes a degree of variation in the levels of discrimination in admissions processes, finding that almost every state Catholic and Jewish school in England allocates all of their places on the basis of religious selection, but that generic Christian schools (adhering to a 'Christian ethos' but having no particular denomination) allocated just 11% of places according to a religious test in 2013. The study finds that 69% of Church of England state secondary schools have admissions policies that religiously discriminate, with this figure rising to 75% when current and former voluntary controlled schools (which have no control over their admission arrangements) are excluded. It also shows that 25% of Church of England state secondary schools use religious selection criteria in allocating all of their places, that 45% select a majority of their pupils with reference to religion and that one in four give priority to children from religious families other than the Church over children from non-religious families. The report further notes that the number of religiously selected places at Church of England secondary schools has increased in the last five years, contrary to the Church's repeated claim to run schools that are open and inclusive.

The report concludes by noting that: 'In both policy and practice, Church schools continue to discriminate along religious lines, and a great many do so to the exclusion of all other religions and beliefs'.

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

Impact of religious selection on parental choice

Humanists UK (20 June 2017).

This analysis of Department for Education statistics on primary and secondary school applications and offers for September 2017 finds that: 'on average, the proportion of parents offered their first choice secondary school was significantly lower in areas with a high proportion of religiously selected places. More specifically, for every 1% increase in the proportion of secondary school places subject to religious selection, there is a 4.2% increase in parents missing out on their first choice school'.

Link to source

Selective Comprehensives 2017: Admissions to high-attaining non-selective schools for disadvantaged pupils

C. Cullinane et al. (2017), The Sutton Trust.

This report looks at the social composition of the top 500 comprehensives in England. It finds that faith schools are over-represented in the category of top schools, as measured by overall GCSE performance, comprising 33.4% of the top 500 comprehensives and 19.7% of secondary schools as a whole. However, the report also finds that faith schools perform less well when using measures based on progress, and that, while the top performing faith schools took a similar (if slightly lower) proportion of children eligible for free school meals to the top performing non-faith schools (at 9.1% compared to 9.5%), the gap compared to their local neighbourhoods was substantially higher. The report notes that faith schools were 'more than three times as socially selective compared to their catchment area than non-faith schools, with an average 6% FSM gap, compared to 2%'. The gaps for the top performing Anglican and Catholic schools were found to be similar, at 5.7% and 6.7% respectively. The report claims that the reason for this is that, because faith schools are able to recruit a significant proportion of pupils on a religious basis, 'they typically draw substantially from outside their neighbourhood catchment areas, particularly in the case of Catholic schools'.

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

Joint Civil Society Report to the United Nations

Universal Periodic Review of the United Kingdom (3rd Cycle), Human Rights Check UK, The British Institute of Human Rights (2017).

This report draws on a range of consultation events and a nationwide call for evidence, engaging over 175 Civil Society Organisations, to explore a range of human rights issues. On the issue of children's rights, the report expresses concern about the impact of religion in the UK's education system. It notes that the requirement for all children in state schools to take part in collective worship in England and Wales raises 'concerns about the inadequacy of withdrawal rights', given that 'children with sufficient understanding are not able to withdraw themselves'. On the issue of faith schools directly, the report highlights 'concerns about the ability of state-funded religious schools to lawfully discriminate against non-religious families by selecting pupils based on religion'.

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

Research into Religiously Selective Admissions Criteria

Fair Admissions Campaign (2017).

This report provides a review of existing studies on the debate around faith schools and outlines research conducted by the Fair Admissions Campaign. This research found clear evidence of socio-economic and ethnic segregation. An analysis of comprehensive secondary schools found that schools without a religious character admitted 11% more pupils who were eligible for free school meals than the proportion of such pupils in their local area. In contrast, Church of England schools admitted 10% fewer, Roman Catholic schools admitted 24% fewer, Jewish secondaries 61% fewer and Muslim secondaries 25% fewer. On average, faith schools whose admissions criteria allowed for religious selection for all places admitted 27% fewer pupils from this category than would be expected if such schools were a true reflection of their local area.

In addition to this, research conducted in 2013 found that Church of England secondaries that did not select on the basis of religion took an average of 0.7% more pupils from Asian backgrounds than their local areas. In contrast, church schools that used selection for 100% of their places took an average of 1.5% fewer. Roman Catholic schools had an average of 4.4% fewer Asian pupils than would be expected given their local areas. Schools with no religious character had an average of around 1% more Asian pupils than would be expected.

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

Ethnic diversity in religious Free Schools

Humanists UK (September 2016).

This report by Humanists UK examines issues of ethnic segregation in religious free schools. Using school ethnicity data from the January 2016 school census, it shows that Christian schools using 100% religious selection are less ethnically diverse and have a much greater proportion of children classed as being of 'white origin' than schools using the 50% cap for religious selection or using no religious selection at all. Data for secondary school admissions (provided by the Fair Admissions Campaign) show that:

63% of pupils at Church of England free schools are white, compared to 78% in 100% selective Church of England schools.

55% of pupils at other Christian schools are white, compared to 85% at 100% selective Christian schools.

15% of pupils at Church of England free schools are Asian, compared to 6% at 100% selective Church of England schools.

19% of pupils in other Christian free schools operating under the 50% cap are Asian, compared to just 3% of pupils at the 100% selective other Christian schools.

Link to source

Poverty of opportunity?

T. Hannay (2 August 2016), SchoolDash.

This blog post for SchoolDash examines the issue of economic deprivation among children, and the way in which different types of schools either enable or hinder opportunities for students from poorer families. The analysis shows that, in certain faith schools (especially Roman Catholic and non-Christian faith schools) poorer pupils are under-represented, after taking account of the levels of poverty in their local areas.

Looking at schools in terms of their religious denomination shows that Church of England schools have 'little overall bias', but Roman Catholic schools 'admit fewer poor pupils than their locations would suggest'. At the secondary school level, the data show that faith schools take 'less than their fair share of poorer pupils while non-religious schools take correspondingly more'. There are also significant differences in the various types of religious school. Non-Christian faith schools have the largest bias, with a deprivation intake score relative to their local population of -46.9% (although the sample size is very small). Among large sample sizes, the most significant bias is found in Roman Catholic schools, with a score of -16.2%. Faith schools as a general category have a score of -9.7%. Church of England schools have a score of +1%. Non-faith schools have a score of +2.6%.

For primary schools, the results are similar. Non-Christian faith schools have an intake bias score of -55.2%, Roman Catholic schools have a score of -10.5%, faith schools in general have a score of -7.3% and Church of England schools have a score of -5.5%. In contrast, non-faith schools have a score of +7.8%.

Link to source

Secondary school admissions in London 2001 to 2015: compliance, complexity and control

A. West and A. Hind (2016), Clare Market Papers (20), London School of Economics and Political Science.

This paper analyses the admissions criteria and practices used by London secondary schools between 2001 and 2015. It finds that converter academies with a religious character are less likely to refer to siblings, distance, children with special educational needs and medical/social need in their admissions criteria, but that a high proportion refer to religious criteria. In addition, eight out of ten converter academies require the completion of a supplementary information form, which is frequently used to confirm religion or religious denomination, and highlight the need to obtain a reference from a priest. In a similar way, sponsored academies with a religious character are more likely to use supplementary information forms and a third require a reference from a priest. The uses of banding and random allocation are more common in academies without a religious character. The authors conclude by recommending that admissions processes be simplified and that: 'No schools should carry out their own admissions … as the incentives for schools to "choose" the most desirable pupils are great. Opportunities to "select in" and "select out" are particularly great when parents complete supplementary information forms detailing reasons for choices, and where parents and families may be "known" to the school'.

A PDF copy of this paper is available to download from the institutional repository at the London School of Economics. Click here to access.

Caught out: Primary schools, catchment areas and social selection

R. Allen and M. Parameshwaran (April 2016), The Sutton Trust.

This research brief examines selection in primary schools. The authors argue that faith schools have a higher rate of social selection than non-faith schools. They write that: 'It is generally true that non-religious schools are not particularly socially selective and that Roman Catholic and other religious primary schools are, regardless of governance status. This reflects the fact that these religious schools consistently apply religious admission criteria'. The authors claim that: 'there needs to be greater scrutiny of legacy criteria at existing schools, ensuring that any religious admissions criteria and processes are straightforward and fair to all'.

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

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.