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.

Download the research bank as a PDF >>> | Share on Twitter>>>

Education, queer theology, and spiritual development: disrupting heteronormativity for inclusion in Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith schools

S. Henry (2018), International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 23(1): 3–16.

This article considers the approach to sexuality and sexual identity taken by Jewish, Muslim and Christian schools. Although the author is in favour of faith schools, the article highlights a critical problem with the way in which faith schooling currently engages with LGBTQ identity issues, claiming that ideas of inclusivity do little to dissolve boundaries between an in-group religious membership defined in terms of adherence to heteronormative ideals and the non-heterosexual 'other'. This approach, the author claims, merely reproduces a binary embedded logic of heteronormativity by reiterating 'the hospitable gesture of the (theistic) host'. In conclusion, the author calls for the application of queer theology to reframe ideas of spiritual development in faith schools in fluid and non-deterministic terms. In this fashion, 'the experience of spiritual development of, say, a Catholic student in an inclusive Catholic faith school would be one where the preservation of Catholic affiliation is not necessarily a priority: the priority would be a queer appreciation for transcendence, not repetition'.

Link to journal

Systems of Indoctrination: Accelerated Christian Education in England

J. Scaramanga (2017), UCL Institute of Education, unpublished Ph.D. thesis.

This Ph.D. thesis examines the use of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) in private Christian schools. Based on a qualitative study of students attending such schools, it finds that: 'While some participants found their ACE experience beneficial, the majority experienced inadequate education, sexism, homophobia, excessive punishment, and discrimination against those considered "ungodly". Many participants described continued effects of indoctrination despite their rejection'. The study notes that: 'private religious schools frequently discriminate on the basis of religion for both staff and students … this makes the development of an indoctrinatory system more likely'.

An ACE school is described as 'a place where the religious ethos permeates every aspect of the school day … The Bible is quoted frequently, as justification for almost everything that happens in the school'. The author highlights critical issues of indoctrination, noting that ACE undermines students' autonomy and hence their ability to flourish in later life. Thus: 'Much of what it is to attend an ACE school is to be deeply absorbed in a subculture where almost everyone espouses the same beliefs and values. Friendships with non-Christians are discouraged except for the purpose of evangelism, and unbelievers are regarded warily'. This produces a view 'of learning as consisting only of rote regurgitation, at the expense of critical thought, creative expression, problem solving, inquiry, or group interaction'.

A PDF copy of this thesis can be downloaded from the University of Central London. Click here to access.

Most state Jewish schools enforce religious dress

National Secular Society (21 November 2017).

Research by the National Secular Society has shown that almost 60% of state-funded Jewish schools in England compelled pupils to wear religious clothing as part of the school uniform. Out of 49 state-funded Jewish schools, 29 were found to list specifically Jewish items of clothing as part of the compulsory school uniform on their website, mostly for boys. Some schools expected religious clothing to be worn outside school grounds, while travelling to and from the premises. Others imposed religious dress and modesty standards on external visitors. The NSS said that: 'Forcing children to wear religious clothing is forcing them to take the identity of a particular religion, regardless of what the child may personally believe. It means that children lose their fundamental right to freedom of belief'.

Link to article

“No offence to God but I don’t believe in Him”: religion, schooling and children’s rights

P. J. Hemming (2017), Ethnography and Education, 13(2): 154­–171.

The study draws on data from a research project on rural church schools, which involved in-depth fieldwork in two Anglican primaries in 2014, to explore the issue of faith schools and children's rights. Although the study was generally favourable towards faith schools, it highlighted problematic aspects of faith schooling for non-religious pupils. First, it found that a small number of pupils 'expressed disinterest in, or dislike of, Christian themed songs and stories or RE lessons, linking this back to their own non-religious positions'. Second, 'the most problematic issue for a larger number of non-religious pupils was prayer, which was often experienced as awkward or meaningless if individuals did not believe in God'. Pilot fieldwork for the study found similar views at other schools. Third, the article notes that: 'The most concerning finding was that many of these children were under the impression that they were required to pray in order to avoid being disciplined by teachers … As such, religious practices were perceived to be intertwined with school rules and behaviour management'. While the author finds little evidence to suggest that the schools involved in the study were indoctrinating their pupils with problematic values, these findings nevertheless raise important issues for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion for pupils who are of a different faith, or no faith, from that represented by the school.

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

Adolescent moral judgement: A study of UK secondary school pupils

D. L. Walker et al. (2017), British Educational Research Journal 43(3): 588–607.

The paper examines the development of character and virtues in an educational setting, based on a study of moral dilemma tests involving year 10 pupils from 31 secondary schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The study finds that pupils attending faith schools achieve slightly better scores than pupils attending non-faith schools, but also finds small (if significant) gaps for schools depending on their proportion of pupils that were eligible for free school meals. Overall, the study reveals no clear links between high moral scores and any specific type of school. The authors conclude that 'character – or in this case its moral judgement component – may be thriving in a variety of school types and in different ways … high scores on the measure are not associated with a particular type of school'.

Link to journal

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

What is it like to be a student in a religious school?

S. Tuastad (2016), Religion and Education, 43(1): 60–76.

This study provides a review of peer-reviewed articles on faith schooling published over a ten-year period in American, Canadian, European, and Australian journals. The review finds that faith schools tend to produce higher levels of academic performance, but that in egalitarian systems 'the differences after the 1990s were almost nonexistent'. The review also shows that students attending faith schools are not disadvantaged in terms of their political learning, but that in terms of social and cultural attitudes they are 'more traditional in their world-views'. The author concludes that the literature on faith schooling provides evidence of disadvantage, noting that some schools resemble 'total institutions' and that 'for knowledge of a variety of cultural lifestyles and exposure to a multiplicity of trends, religious totality may in theory be obstructive. This may be problematic from a liberal political perspective'.

Link to journal

Shh … No Talking: LGBT-inclusive Sex and Relationships Education in the UK

Terrence Higgins Trust (July 2016).

This report examines the extent to which Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is taught in UK schools. It notes that SRE is compulsory only for maintained secondary schools, meaning that primary schools, free schools and academies in England do not have to teach it. The report draws on data from an online survey of young people aged 16-25. It finds that, of those respondents that did not receive SRE: 'there were a disproportionate number who went to private, state religious and free schools'. Conversely, of those who did receive SRE, 'a disproportionate number went to state comprehensive schools'. The report goes on to note that: 'State religious schools had lower proportions of pupils reporting having been taught a variety of SRE topics. This included safe sex, sex and pleasure, consent, teenage pregnancy, the contraceptive pill, the morning after pill, condoms, STIs and oral sex'.

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

The promotion of British values: sexual orientation equality, religion, and England’s schools

R. M. Vanderbeck and P. Johnson (2016), International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 30(3): 292–321.

This article argues that the inclusion of sexual orientation equality within the scope of 'British values' has given new impetus to debates about the appropriate balance between children's rights, the right of parents to provide religious direction to children, the prerogatives of faith schools and the state's legitimate interest in protecting sexual minorities. Though noting that: 'movements affirmative of sexual orientation diversity exist in many churches and religious traditions', and that: 'opposition is not limited to people of religious faith', the authors claim that faith schools are a site of contestation between morally conservative religious interests and advocates of sexual orientation equality. Thus, religious actors and interests 'remain at the forefront of resistance to reforms that would make schools more inclusive' in terms of sexual orientation.

The article goes on to highlight an unresolved tension at the heart of the government's approach, between its assertions that sexual orientation equality is a universal British value to be promoted in all schools and a desire to keep discussion of sexual orientation issues within an ambiguous framework that is treated flexibly based on the particular religious character of schools. As the authors note: 'This raises challenging questions regarding whether the practice of a faith school advocating heterosexual marriage as the only morally sanctioned form of sexual expression could ever be said to fully comply with requirements to promote respect and toleration for non-heterosexual people'.

Link to journal

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

What can international comparisons teach us about school choice and non-governmental schools in Europe?

J. Dronkers and S. Avram (2015), Comparative Education, 51(1): 118–132.

This paper uses comparable cross-national data for all member states of the European Union to study a variety of educational arrangements. It notes that the main argument for religious schools has been the assumption that they would socialise their pupils in religious values and attitudes. Parents therefore had the right to send their children to subsidised faith schools to ensure the socialisation of their children in the values of their religion. However, the study finds (possibly due to secularisation) that religious schools are no longer keen on, or successful in, moulding the attitudes and beliefs of the students attending them. This process has potentially significant effects, making the confessional character of a school less relevant and undermining the raison d'etre of the government subsidising faith schools.

Link to journal

The Teachers’ Report, 2014: Homophobic Bullying in Britain’s Schools

Stonewall (2014).

This report examines homophobic bullying in schools. It finds that teachers in faith schools are significantly less likely to report that their school allows them to teach about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues than teachers working in non-faith schools. The respective figures here are 51% compared to 62%.

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