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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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.

An Unholy Mess: How Virtually All Religiously Selective State Schools in England are Breaking the Law

British Humanist Association report for the Fair Admissions Campaign (2015).

This report examines the admissions policies of religiously selective state secondary schools. The sample includes all such schools that were located in local authorities where the local authority's name began with the letter 'B'. This amounted to a total of 70 schools – 13% of the overall total of 535 religiously selective secondary schools in England. The study focuses on intakes between reception and year ten and finds that 69 of the 70 schools in the sample were in breach of the Admissions Code, providing evidence of 'widespread non-compliance'.

The survey also finds that almost 90% of schools asked for information from parents that they did not need (including 'details of religious observance in a different or more detailed way than was required for the oversubscription criteria'), that around 85% were improperly publishing their admission arrangements (publishing them too late and/or removing previous arrangements too early) and over a third were 'placing conditions on the consideration of applications other than those in the oversubscription criteria – either by asking for information that was not later considered, or by asking parents and children to support the ethos of the school'. The report further notes that over a quarter of schools were 'religiously selecting in ways not allowed in guidance from their religious authorities', and almost a fifth were 'requiring practical or financial support to associated organisations – through voluntary activities such as flower arranging in churches or, in the case of two Jewish schools, in requiring membership of synagogues (which costs money)'. The report also finds that: 'A number of schools were found to have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender'.

The report concludes by calling for the abolition of religious selection by state schools. Other recommendations include: providing greater guidance for schools on complying with the Admissions Code, revising the code to avoid areas of confusion, setting up an independent monitoring body to enforce compliance with the code and creating an external body to set school admissions policies.

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

What parents want: school preferences and school choice

S. Burgess et al. (2015), The Economic Journal, 125: 1262–1289.

This article examines parental preferences for schools in England, using an array of survey, administrative, census and spatial data. It shows that most families have strong preferences for schools based on academic performance, socio-economic composition (preferring schools with a lower proportion of pupils from low income households) and proximity to the home (tending to prefer schools that are closer). Although the study does not directly address the issue of faith schools, it has clear relevance to some of the key themes in the faith schools debate, showing, first, that the desire to send children to schools because of their religious ethos is not a central preference for parents, and second, that school preferences are focused on accessibility (which is hampered by religious admission requirements). As the authors write: 'Most of the variation in preferences for school quality across socio-economic groups arises from differences in the quality of accessible schools rather than differences in parents' preferences'. The article concludes by noting that: 'school policy needs to be aware of and minimise the potential for sorting along social lines'.

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

A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools

C. Clarke and L. Woodhead (2015), Westminster Faith Debates.

This report examines a range of issues around the role of religion in the education system. The authors maintain that the abolition of faith schools is not desirable or feasible, but also claim that: 'reforms could be beneficial and should be properly explored'. They claim that the use of religious criteria for admission to a faith school has given rise to 'a number of serious problems', noting that it 'unfairly advantages churches and Christians whose energies are directed inwards to their own worshipping community rather than outwards to the whole local community, or wider society', 'takes as much or more account of the practice and wishes of parents than of the child whose education is at stake', 'discriminates against children whose families have no faith practice' and 'may advantage those who are able to afford to attend regular worship'.

The authors claim that while 'families who are regular worshippers have a legitimate right to expect their children should have some priority in admission to schools which share their faith', 'all steps to fairer admissions systems, and the elimination of abuses of the types that we have described, are very important'. Thus: 'In the longer term more effort should be given to devising fairer admissions policies to faith schools' (suggestions include random selection).

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

The moral imperative: the case of the English education system

S. Spangenberg and B. McIntosh (2014), Policy Futures in Education, 21(5): 730–740.

This article analyses the English school education system and its relationship with social preferences. Although it does not focus on faith schools per se, the paper has direct relevance to debates around faith schooling that centre on issues of selection and admissions. The authors contend that the current segmented education system, including the division between non-religious and faith schools, 'guides parents into conformity and pursuing segregation-creating educational paths for their children'. While they do not advocate the abolition of faith schools (claiming, rather, that they should be converted into multi-faith schools, with religious education and practice included in the curriculum), the authors do call for a restriction of parental school selection in order to provide equality of opportunity and social mobility. As they put it: 'Children should be placed directly into schools (either comprehensive or selective) irrespective of their parents' wishes, income, faith or social class membership'.

A PDF copy of this paper can be downloaded from ResearchGate. Click here to access.

The admissions criteria of secondary Free Schools

R. Morris (2014), Oxford Review of Education, 40(3), 389–409.

This paper analyses the admissions criteria used by the first two waves of secondary free schools in England. The type of criteria and their ranked order is explored and their potential impact on the school composition is considered. The findings demonstrate the diversity of criteria being used by this new type of school and give some insight in to how free schools appear to be prioritising access. Whilst the admissions policies of the majority of secondary free schools appeared to be adhering to the 2012 Admissions Code legislation, the study highlights the influence that such criteria might have in creating intakes which are less balanced in terms of socio-economic status, ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The study finds that faith was sometimes placed ahead of other admissions criteria, such as the presence of a sibling at the school, whether a child had medical or social needs, and proximity to the school. One school in the study included place of worship alongside their faith criteria. This use of faith criteria was found to increase the ability of the schools to segregate on social grounds, with a potentially negative impact on social and academic outcomes. The author concludes by calling on free schools to give priority to children who are eligible for free school meals and to consider the use of random allocation as a fairer way to allocate places.

Link to journal

Fair access: Making school choice and admissions work for all

R. Allen, J. Clifton (2013), Excellence and Equity: Tackling Educational Disadvantage in England's Secondary Schools, Institute for Public Policy Research.

This chapter examines issues around school choice and its impact on the life chances of children. The author argues that faith schools should be permitted to admit up to 50% of their pupils using a faith criterion (and 'substantially less where it is clear the religious community is not large enough to support this level'), but discusses a variety of ways in which admissions could be simplified. Recommendations include strict limitations on the religious criterion to prevent faith schools from asking intrusive questions (e.g. about marital status, the place of child's baptism etc.) that might reveal information about the social background of the family and enable 'covert' selection.

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

The admissions arrangements of faith schools and the Equality Act 2010

D. Rosenberg and R. Desai (2013), Education Law Journal, 14(2): 93–99.

This article discusses the legal context of admissions procedures involving faith as a criterion and highlights cases in which admissions policies based on faith can cause cases of discrimination. These include grounds of disability (e.g. if a person is unable to attend a church to accumulate sufficient "points") and race (e.g. if a Church of England school is based in an area with a significant non-white Muslim population) and sexuality (e.g. if a school applies a criteria requiring church attendance but the church in question is intolerant of homosexuality). On this latter point the authors note that 'it would be difficult for a school to justify retaining any strict attendance criteria (e.g. 'regular attendance at X church') in its oversubscription criteria, if X church adopted a discriminatory approach to homosexuality, since this would effectively exclude pupils from schools based on their parents' sexual orientation'.

A PDF copy of this article is available to download from the Fair Admissions Campaign. Click here to access.

Geographies of transition and the separation of lower and higher attaining pupils in the move from primary to secondary school in London

R. Harris (2013), Transitions, 38(2): 254–266.

This paper uses a statistical and spatial analysis to examine the transitions made by pupils from state-funded primary to secondary schools in London in 2008. It finds that faith schools can be a mechanism for reinforcing social divisions. The report shows that higher and lower attaining pupils separate from each other when they transition into secondary schools, with the 'best in class' pupils more likely to be found in selective schools that set entrance exams and faith schools that control their own admissions policies. The paper notes that: 'The implication is that where belonging to or sympathy for a faith group form part of the admissions criteria, that faith criterion acts as a filter between higher and lower attaining pupils'.

The study also shows that faith schools recruited disproportionately few pupils that were eligible for free school meals. The proportion of pupils who were eligible in 2008 (based on the London data) was 0.266. In voluntary aided Church of England schools, the proportion was 0.242. In Roman Catholic schools the figure was 0.201. The report notes that, insofar as eligibility for free school meals is a sign of economic disadvantage: 'it is hard to avoid the conclusion that selective schools especially but also faith schools, on average, are socially selective'.

Link to journal

Faith Schools

Accord Coalition / ComRes (November 2012).

A survey conducted by ComRes for the Accord Coalition in November 2012 found that the large majority of respondents (73%) did not believe that state-funded schools (including faith schools) should be permitted to discriminate against prospective pupils in their admissions policies (just 19% thought that they should be allowed to do this).

Q.1. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement? State funded schools, including state funded faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy.

Strongly agree: 50%

Slightly agree: 23%

Slightly disagree: 10%

Strongly disagree: 9%

Don't know: 9%

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