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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Children and Young People’s Views of Education Policy

Office of the Children's Commissioner (March 2011).

This report examines the views of young people on their time at school and finds large opposition to the use of religion as a criterion for school admissions. Just 20% of children and young people feel that religion should be used in this way, while 64% feel that it should not (with 16% unsure). The study notes that participants 'tended to hold strong views against selection on religious grounds', with focus group statements calling the use of religion in admissions criteria 'racist' and a case of 'discrimination'. The report concludes that: 'Selection on the basis of religion appears to be a concern to many young people. There may therefore be value in exploring further why young people feel this is the case and ensuring that their views on this issue are conveyed as part of the review of the School Admissions Code'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

‘How to Regulate Faith Schools’ M. Clayton, A. Mason, A. Swift & R. Wareham, Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy Impact No. 25, 2019.

The authors explain the key arguments concerning faith schools. On the one hand, parents have the right to decide how – and with whom – their children are educated. On the other hand, the paper reinforces the assertion that schools with a religious character are often perceived to be 'good schools' in terms of their academic performance which is a false claim. The authors argue that parents' rights over their children's education do not include the right to send them to a school so continuous with the culture at home that it risks depriving them of the capacity for autonomy. This is often the case for faith schools, particularly whereby certain values and issues are undermined for example education regarding the LGBTQ community. Furthermore, adds to the topic of whereby some faith schools undermine key British values and therefore an assumption can be made how faith schools can undermine a healthy, tolerant liberal democracy.

The paper states that the common suggestion that faith schools are better than their non-faith counterparts involve, at best, a limited view about the educational goods that we properly look to schools to produce. Human rights law means that parents must indeed be free to decide their children's education in the light of their own religious and philosophical commitments supporting the case against faith schools. But the authors explain that does not imply that the state should support religious schooling that risks children's autonomy and it does not prevent the state's requiring children to learn about alternative ways of life, and about their own and others' moral and civic status as free and equal persons, even where doing so runs counter to parents' preferences.

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

Legislative Scrutiny: Equality Bill (second report); Digital Economy Bill

House of Lords/House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, Fourteenth Report of Session (2009–10), House of Lords Paper 73. House of Commons Paper 425 (March 2010).

This report, produced by the House of Lords/House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, examines two issues that were initially raised in its autumn 2009 report on the Equality Bill, namely: (1) school admissions, and (2) employment by organisations based on religion or belief.

The report criticises the view that faith schools need to discriminate in their admissions criteria to maintain their distinctiveness. Highlighting evidence on the ethos of Church of England primary schools, the report found that many had successfully preserved their 'ethos' even when they did not have faith-based admissions criteria (although it was accepted that this argument was stronger for non-Church of England faith schools, since parents who wished their child to be educated in other faiths had a much smaller pool of schools to choose from). As a result, the report notes that: 'the exemption permitting faith schools to discriminate in their admissions on grounds of religion or belief may be overdrawn'.

The report also criticised the government's view that parents with religious convictions would find it increasingly difficult to access faith schools if those schools were deprived of the ability to prioritise applicants based on their faith. Noting that Article 2 of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) does not give parents a right to a place for their child at a school of their faith, and that, while parents had the right to send their child to a faith school, there was no requirement for the state to provide them, the report concluded that: 'we do not find the argument persuasive'. Respect for parents' religious and philosophical convictions was 'not a good justification for allowing faith schools to prioritise applicants for admission on the basis of their faith'.

The report further notes that reserving a certain proportion of posts for individuals who adhere to the religious beliefs and ethos of a faith school might open the way to claims of employment discrimination (via a breach of the Framework Equality Directive 200/78/EC) since 'the reservation of such posts is not restricted to circumstances where it can be shown that a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement to adhere to a particular religious belief can be said to exist'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Secondary school admissions in England: Admission forums, local authorities and schools

P. Noden and A. West (2009), Education Research Group, London School of Economics and Political Science, Commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education Trust.

This report presents the findings of the second part of a research project commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education (RISE) Trust. The report sets out examples of how admission forums and local authorities have responded to recent changes in the law relating to secondary school admissions. The research for the report examines admission arrangements and the operation of admission forums in five local authority areas. The study finds examples of breaches of the admissions code and a number of 'suspicious' practices in the case of faith schools, noting in conclusion that: 'it is not obvious that schools setting their own oversubscription criteria is of benefit to the local community'. The authors note that: 'most of the schools with a religious character in the case study areas (both Church of England and Catholic) applied religious oversubscription criteria', and claim that: 'At schools that are not "inclusive", we might take the view that the schools are performing an additional function – for example, passing on the faith or sustaining a religious community'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Religious schools in London: school admissions, religious composition and selectivity

R. Allen and A. West (2009), Oxford Review of Education, 35(4): 471–494.

This article provides an empirical examination of the way in which religious schools appear to select pupils, as well as the subsequent social, ability and religious segregation of pupils across schools. Analysing the composition of secondary schools with a religious character in London, the paper shows that faith schools foster segregation by catering for pupils from particular religions and/or denominations and ethnic groups. The data show that 96% of pupils in Roman Catholic schools and 76% of pupils in Church of England schools are recorded as 'Christian', with very small percentages of pupils coming from other faiths or none. Pupils from South Asian minority groups are particularly under-represented, with just 1% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils being educated in religious schools.

The study finds that faith schools also tend to admit pupils from more affluent backgrounds and pupils who have higher levels of prior attainment than those in non-religious schools. Just 17% of pupils in religious secondary schools in London were eligible for free school meals, compared to 25% in non-religious schools. Just 19% of pupils in faith schools were from the lowest ability category, compared to 31% in non-religious schools. Faith schools also admit a greater proportion of highest scoring pupils at Key Stage 2 (at 28% versus 25% for non-faith schools).

The authors caution that these results cannot be used to show clear evidence of "cream-skimming" ('because we do not know whether the less affluent families applied to the school') and that 'the unique character of London means these results cannot be generalised across England', but argue that the findings do show a 'distortion of mission for at least some religious schools given that they were originally set up to educate the poor'.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from ResearchGate.

Click here to access.

Social Selectivity of State Schools and the Impact of Grammars

The Sutton Trust (October 2008).

This study examines issues of selection in the UK's education system and shows that the majority (54) of England's top 100 socially selective schools are faith schools (compared to just 18 in 100 nationally). The report backs calls for religious schools to consider straightforward 'binary' criteria to decide which pupils should be admitted on faith grounds (such as 'a signature from a religious leader to demonstrate commitment to a particular faith'), as well as other methods, such as the use of banding and ballots, to create a fairer admissions system. The report further notes that: 'An alternative would be simply for faith schools to be open to any family who wants their child to be educated in line with the tenets of that particular religion'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Church schools “divide society”

D. MacLeod (14 October 2008), The Guardian.

A poll conducted by the Church of England found high levels of support for faith schools, but also found that a significant proportion (45%) of respondents who agreed that church schools were different from schools run by a local authority believed that children from better-off backgrounds were more likely to get places.

Link to article

Allocating pupils to their nearest secondary school: The consequences for social and ability stratification

R. Allen (2007), Urban Studies, 44(4): 751–770.

This study examines the stratified nature of secondary school choice in England. Using data from the National Pupil Database, and focusing on pupils in year 9 (age 13/14) in 2002/03, it found that current levels of sorting (defined as 'pupils who do not attend their proximity allocation school') were around 50%, and noted that: 'grammar schools and own-admissions authority schools are associated with greater levels of school segregation, measured using free school meals eligibility as an indicator of low income'.

The study also found that patterns of school choice and segregation were consistent with existing research on the "cream-skimming" of pupils, and research showing that the role of voluntary aided faith schools in producing post-residential sorting was 'far greater than for foundation schools'. The author notes that voluntary aided schools seemed to be responsible for 'well over half of all cream-skimming' while schools with admissions processes controlled by their local authority 'rarely appear to be cream-skimming'. The report also noted that around one in ten voluntary controlled schools (schools that had a religious character but whose admissions processes were controlled by a local authority) had 'a much lower than expected' proportion of pupils that were eligible for free school meals.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the institutional repository at the University of Central London.

Click here to access.

School Admissions: Fair Choice for Parents and Pupils

S. Tough and R. Brooks (June 2007), Institute for Public Policy Research.

This report argues that the current admissions system for school places is a cause of segregation by social class and ability and is likely to lead to systematic unfairness. This is especially the case for schools that are their own admissions authorities (such as faith schools), which are found to be more unrepresentative of their local areas than schools with admissions that are controlled by the local authority. The authors claim that a system of fair choice would take into account the need to achieve a balanced intake in every school, and call for a system of area-wide banding for all local authorities in order to ensure that schools admit pupils of all abilities. The report argues that this should apply equally to faith schools, meaning that 'religious faith would no longer take strict precedence over all other factors in allocating places'. They argue that this approach would also 'be compatible with schools maintaining their own distinct ethos, religious or otherwise'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

School choice in London, England: Characteristics of students in different types of secondary schools

A. West and A. Hind (2007), Peabody Journal of Education, 82(2-3): 498–529.

This article compared a range of school types to analyse variation in school composition. Using a database of secondary schools in London produced by the Department for Education, the study found statistically significant links between the ability of a school to determine its own admissions policy and the admission of children with higher levels of academic attainment and lower levels of poverty and disadvantage. The study also found evidence of ethnic selection. Voluntary aided schools (most of which were religious) were shown to admit fewer Bangladeshi and Pakistani students, who were more likely to be Muslim, and to have a higher proportion of black students, who were more likely to be Christian.

Link to journal