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.

Values and morality

Many widely held moral principles are promoted by both faith and non-faith schools, the latter without framing these through an exclusively religious ethos. However, the evidence in this section shows that the promotion of religious values often runs contrary to ideals of equality in areas such as sexual orientation and reproductive rights. While supporters contend that educating children within a religious tradition fosters moral learning, critics argue that this reflects a desire to advance the interests of particular religious institutions.

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Assessing student attitudes toward Christianity in Church in Wales primary schools: does aided status make a difference?

L. J. Francis, D. W. Lankshear and E. L. Eccles (2020), British Journal of Religious Education, 42(1): 56–64.

The study examines the connection between attending Anglican schools in England and Wales and attitudes toward Christianity. It measures the attitude toward Christianity of 4581 pupils aged 8 to 11 in 87 Church in Wales primary schools, comparing the responses of pupils attending voluntary controlled schools with those attending voluntary aided schools, which have a greater control over their organisation and teaching.

Noting that the majority of Anglican church primary schools in England and Wales are serving single school areas, and that the majority of students attend these schools for reasons of proximity ('not because their parents have deliberately chosen to send them to a church school'), the study finds that, controlling for sex, age and frequency of church attendance, voluntary aided status is associated with a more positive attitude toward Christianity.

The authors conclude that: 'If one of the aims and objectives of Anglican schools is to promote a positive view of Christianity these data suggest that aided schools are more effective than controlled schools in promoting this outcome'.

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

Untitled. General Synod, Children and Youth Ministry

GS 2161 (January 2020).

This paper discusses the declining participation in Christianity in young people, especially the under-16s, and highlights the Church of England's strategic thinking that one way to rectify this decline is through the use of faith schools. The paper notes that: 'Decline among under 16s is much faster than decline among all other generations' and that: 'We have many opportunities as a Church to engage with children and young people through schools'. The report 'calls on the whole church to address how we can draw stronger links between schools, churches and families' and concludes by suggesting that one way in which the Church could address its decline is to 'help churches establish stronger links with church schools'.

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

Education policies and teacher deployment in Northern Ireland:

Ethnic separation, cultural encapsulation and community cross-over, M. Milliken, J. Bates and A. Smith (2019), British Journal of Educational Studies, (no issue at time of writing).

This research examines sectarian divisions in the Northern Ireland education system and the impact that this has had upon teachers. In particular, the study tries to assess the extent to which 'the deployment of teachers in mainstream schools in Northern Ireland reflects the enduring community divide'. The paper shows how a number of legal and cultural barriers restrict teachers' ability to move across and between the divided school sector. The authors note, for example, that: 'The recruitment of teachers is excepted from fair employment legislation' and that they are 'legally entitled to use religious belief as grounds on which to discriminate between candidates for teaching posts'.

Drawing on data drawn from an online survey of 1,015 teachers, the study finds high levels of 'cultural encapsulation', meaning that 'divided schools are staffed, on the whole, by a community consistent workforce of teachers – i.e. that Catholic teachers were generally employed in the Maintained and Catholic grammar sectors and Protestant teachers in Controlled schools and non-denominational grammars'. The authors note that 'as many as half of the teachers employed have had little or no professional engagement across the community divide; they have remained community consistent throughout their entire education and career'. Thus, while 'education has been identified as a key mechanism for reconciliation in NI', the cultural divisions between teachers limit their ability to engage in divisive issues.

Although this study focuses on the unique conditions in Northern Ireland, it nevertheless highlights an important and neglected issue within the debate around faith schools: namely, the extent to which employment barriers and cultural expectations can limit the career possibilities of teachers and constrain their ability to perform effectively in their role as educators.

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Queer religious youth in faith and community schools

Y. Taylor and K. Cuthbert (2019), Educational Review, 71(3): 382–396.

This article offers a qualitative exploration of both "faith" and "community" school experiences of queer religious youth in England. This is timely given the UK government's allocation of funding to the charities Stonewall and Barnardo's for tackling homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (HBT) in faith schools, in apparent recognition of these sites as particularly problematic. This occurs amidst wider concerns over 'British values' and the increasing mobilisation of 'sexual orientation equality' rhetoric as part of these discourses. Recent political discourses of 'British values' has meant government support for faith schools now exists uneasily alongside the commitment to gender and sexualities equality.

Whilst faith schools have been continuously exempted from statutory sex education, a number of faith schools have failed Ofsted inspections on the grounds of their inadequate handling of gender and sexualities equality. For example, a recent Ofsted report on a failed Jewish girls' school stated that: 'pupils are not taught explicitly about issues such as sexual orientation ... as a result, pupils are not able to gain a full understanding of fundamental British values'.

The paper cautions against reductionist assumptions that faith schools are particular places of risk or danger for queer youth (noting that faith schools are not monolithic) but highlights a recent Stonewall Schools Report, indicating that LGBT pupils in faith schools are less likely than their peers in non-faith schools to report issues around bullying, more likely to say that school staff never challenge HBT language, and less likely to learn about safe sex in relation to same-sex relationships. They also report that LGBT pupils of faith are more likely to have attempted suicide.

Link to journal

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

Made in God’s Image: Challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying in Catholic Schools

St. Mary's, London (2018).

This document from the Catholic Education Service (put together by St Mary's, London) provides guidance for Catholic schools on how to deal with bi- and homophobic bullying. It calls for inclusiveness, noting that: 'Catholic teaching on homosexuality is not founded on, and can never be used to justify "homophobic" attitudes'. However, the document goes on to add that: 'No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples', and that:

Where individual teachers are concerned, having a view about something does not amount to discrimination. So it should not be unlawful for a teacher in any school to express personal views on sexual orientation provided that it is done in an appropriate manner and context (for example when responding to questions from pupils, or in an RE or Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) lesson).

Appendix A to the document details responses to a survey of 49 Catholic schools in England and Wales. The respondents were either heads (13), deputy heads (17), assistant heads (14), or other (5). While 96% of respondents said that their school had 'an existing anti-bullying policy that includes strategies for combating homophobic bullying', other responses highlighted serious shortcomings on this issue: 41% said that their school did not 'have access at KS3 to resources/materials that would help to challenge homophobic bullying' (Q.2), 59% said that they were not 'presently using materials at KS3 to address homophobic bullying' (Q.3), 84% said that they did not 'have any policies or questionnaires on homophobic bullying' that they had worked on or trialled that they 'would be willing to share with full acknowledgement given to the school' (Q.6), and 90% did not 'have any case studies on homophobic bullying that [they] could share anonymously for guidance to other Catholic schools' (Q.7).

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

Christian ethos secondary schools in England and Wales: a common voice or wide diversity?

L. J. Francis, A. Casson and U. McKenna (2018), Journal of Beliefs and Values, 1–18.

This study draws on quantitative data to compare the beliefs and attitudes of pupils attending 10 Christian ethos secondary schools and 71 schools without a religious character. The study finds similarities in some areas (such as views on whether religion was a force for good, beliefs in evolution and attitudes towards homosexuality) but reveals substantial differences between the social and moral outlook of the two groups. These include:

* 49% of students attending Christian ethos schools profess to have a belief in God, compared to 26% of pupils in non-religious schools.

* 46% of students attending Christian ethos schools state a belief in Jesus Christ, compared to 22% of pupils in non-religious schools.

* 41% of pupils at Christian schools say they believe in the Holy Spirit, compared to 17% of pupils in non-religious schools.

* 46% of students attending Christian schools hold the view that it is wrong to have sex under the legal age, compared with 31% in non-religious schools.

* 29% of students in Christian schools say that it is wrong to get drunk, compared with 20% of students in schools without a religious character.

* 73% of students in Christian schools are concerned about the poverty of the developing world, compared with 62% in schools without a religious character.

* 69% of students in Christian ethos schools say that they are often worried about their school work, compared with 57% in schools without a religious character.

Although the authors are positively inclined towards a role for faith in the education system, and point out that faith schools cannot be treated as a homogenous category, these findings can nevertheless be interpreted as evidence that faith schools inculcate (at least to some degree) religious values amongst their pupils

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

Faith schools and the cultivation of tolerance

A. Mason (2018), Theory and Research in Education, 16(2): 204–225.

This article has a generally positive view of faith schools but argues that they ought to be more stringently regulated. The author claims that there is insufficient support for the view that schools with a religious character are considerably sub-optimal for cultivating the virtues of tolerance among their pupils compared to non-faith alternatives, but calls for regulatory reform of both state-funded and privately funded faith schools. The article argues that faith schools should be required to provide a civic education that is well designed to help cultivate in children an appreciation of the importance of the virtues of tolerance and a capacity for critical reflection, and that they ought to present other religions and their adherents in a respectful and fair-minded way. This is the case even if faith schools aim to nurture in children a particular faith, and even if they are permitted to give some priority in admissions to children from families that share that faith. The author also argues that faith schools should be required to be welcoming to children from other faith backgrounds and be required to ensure that they achieve some degree of diversity in so far as the applications they receive permit them to do so.

Link to journal

What is the point of religious education?

M. Clayton and D. Stevens (2018), Theory and Research in Education, 16(1): 65–81.

This paper centres on the issue of religious education, although the general argument is applicable to faith schools to the extent that they seek to promote a particular religious worldview. The paper presents a philosophical objection to the idea of religious education, arguing that the promotion of religion breaches the 'acceptability requirement', namely that: 'a government's justification of its educational policy must be acceptable to all reasonable citizens over which it has dominion'. Fostering toleration and civic unity are important educational aims, but so too is the need to equip pupils with the intellectual ability to make serious, considered and well-reasoned ethical choices. The authors go on to claim that 'every child has an entitlement to an education that develops his or her understanding of different conceptions of the good so that he or she has the resources to develop his or her own view, reflect upon it in an informed manner, and rationally pursue it'. They conclude that educational systems should teach ethics and moral philosophy rather than the study of religious doctrines.

Link to journal

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

Unsafe Sex Education:

The Risk of Letting Religious Schools Teach Within the Tenets of Their Faith, National Secular Society (April 2018).

This report examines the Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) policies of 634 state-funded faith schools in England in 2018. It shows that 77% of those schools with an SRE policy were delivering the subject 'according to the teachings of the school's religious ethos, rather than in a secular, impartial manner', that 'SRE policies could not be found on the websites for nearly half of the schools', and that: 'In many faith schools, SRE is delivered primarily through the Religious Education (RE) curriculum or equivalent'. The report shows that the primary goal of SRE at many faith schools is: 'To impart religious values about sex and relationships', and identified a host of problems in the way that faith schools taught SRE. This included the use of policies to promote marriage as 'an ideal state', claims that 'sex outside of marriage is wrong', that 'being married with children is an ideal', that 'contraception and abortion are wrong', that 'homosexual acts are wrong' and that 'homosexuality itself is "disordered"'.

The report concludes that: 'Teaching SRE from a religious perspective is generally the norm at state secondary faith schools in England', and makes a number of recommendations. These include a call for SRE to 'be based on recommendations from healthcare and educational professionals, not religious scripture', for it to be 'impartial, consistent between schools and consistent with the Equality Act', and for SRE policies to be readily accessible on the websites of all state schools.

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

How to regulate faith schools

M. Clayton et al. (2018), Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy.

This paper address two arguments that are typically presented by supporters of faith schools, namely: (1) that parents have the right to decide how – and with whom – their children are educated, and (2) that schools with a religious character tend to be good schools. The authors maintain that parents' rights over their children's education do not include the right to send them to a school that is so continuous with the culture at home that it risks depriving them of the capacity for autonomy, and nor do they forbid the state's acting to develop the civic and moral capacities that are required for a healthy, tolerant liberal democracy.

The authors further contend that the suggestion that faith schools are better than their non-faith counterparts involves, at best, a limited view about the educational goods that schools ought 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, but that does not imply that the state should support religious schooling that risks children's autonomy and it does not prevent the state requiring children to learn about alternative ways of life as well as about their own and others' moral and civic status as free and equal persons, even where doing so runs counter to parents' preferences.

This paper can be downloaded freely from the journal. Click here to access.