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.

Opinion polls

Opinion poll evidence challenges the claim that faith schools are popular with parents and communities, showing strong and consistent opposition to the idea of state-funded faith schools, from religious and non-religious citizens alike. There is significant variation between the phrasing of questions and between religious denominations. Opposition to religious selection or discrimination in faith schools is particularly strong.

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Teachers are losing their religion – part two

Teacher Tapp (August 2019).

Teacher Tapp is a daily research app used by thousands of teachers working in English schools.

A majority of teachers (59%) support an end to new faith schools or ending state funding of existing faith schools (51%). There was a significant variation between religious and non-religious teachers:

Teachers who would like to see no new faith schools open, by their own religious status:

Total 59% Agree 41% Disagree

Active religious 27% Agree 73% Disagree

Less active religious 43% Agree 57% Disagree

Not religious 73% Agree 27% Disagree

Teachers who would like to see an end to state funding of faith schools, by their own religious status:

Total 51% Agree 49% Disagree

Active religious 12% Agree 88% Disagree

Less active religious 29% Agree 71% Disagree

Not religious 69% Agree 31% Disagree

As in many other surveys, opposition to religious selection or discrimination in faith school admissions ran ahead of generalised opposition to faith schools. All groups were more likely to oppose religious selection, however there was significant variation by the teachers' personal religiosity and the type of school they worked at.

Proportion of teachers who think state schools should be allowed to select on religion, by their own religious status:

Total 18% Agree 70% Disagree 12% Not sure

Active religious 36% Agree 43% Disagree 21% Not sure

Less active religious 20% Agree 59% Disagree 21% Not sure

Not religious 4% Agree 81% Disagree 15% Not sure

Proportion of teachers who think state schools should be allowed to select on religion, by their school type:

Anglican 15% Agree 66% Disagree 19% Not sure

Catholic 36% Agree 41% Disagree 23% Not sure

Non-religious 10% Agree 75% Disagree 15% Not sure

Some faith school supporters argue that organising a school around religion creates a space where teachers and pupils, regardless of their own religion or belief, feel more able to discuss such issues. However, the research shows that more teachers feel more comfortable discussing religion in non-faith schools.

Religious and non-religious teachers in non-faith schools in England both feel comfortable discussing religion (76% of both groups agree that they are comfortable).

Figures diverge in faith schools, where 69% of non-religious and 85% of religious teachers feel comfortable discussing religion.

Indeed, a majority of all teachers would rather teach in a non-faith school, though there is significant variation among teachers who are personally religious and between school types:

75% of non-religious teachers in non-faith schools in England would prefer not to teach in a faith school.

Of non-religious teachers in faith schools 46% would prefer working in a non-faith school.

Among religious teachers 23% in non-faith schools prefer working in a non-faith school.

A summary of the poll is available. Click here for access.

Belfast: A city still divided two decades after the Good Friday Agreement

Sky Data (April 2019).

A poll commissioned by Sky News, to mark twenty years of the Belfast Agreement, found that 69% of respondents support integrated education, as opposed to schools largely divided along religious grounds.

A summary of the poll is available. Click here for access.

British public opposes religious influence in education, poll finds

Censuswide/National Secular Society (11 June 2018).

A Censuswide poll commissioned by the National Secular Society found that the overwhelming majority of respondents were opposed to the idea of religious selection and inclusive religious education in schools. Just 17% agreed with the statement that: 'Publicly funded schools should be able to select pupils on the grounds of their religious beliefs'. Just 29% agreed that faith schools should be able to select on the same basis. Just 14% of respondents disagreed with the statement: 'State-funded faith schools should be obligated to teach RE in a way that is inclusive of all religious and non-religious belief systems'.

Link to source

YouGov survey results

March 2018

In March 2018 a survey conducted by YouGov found that most people in the UK were opposed to parents attending church with the intention of getting their child into a religiously affiliated school.

Do you think is it acceptable or unacceptable for parents to attend Church specifically to get their child into an affiliated school?

Acceptable: 22%

Unacceptable: 56%

Don't know: 22%

Link to source

Education in NI, Opinion tracker poll

Lucid Talk (February 2018).

A poll commissioned by the Integrated Education Fund reiterated the strong public support for integrated education, as opposed to schools largely divided along religious grounds.

QUESTION 4: If your child/ren's school, (or if you're not a parent your local school), was to propose becoming an officially integrated school, would you support this proposal?

Yes 67.2%

No 20.3%

Don't know/Not Sure 12.4%

QUESTION 9: Taking into account that there are more than 50,000 empty school places in NI, would you support cross-community mergers of schools to rationalise the education system and to save money in Northern Ireland?

Yes 78.2%

No 12.7%

Don't know/Not Sure 9.1%

A summary of the poll is available. Click here for access.

Attitudes towards faith-based schooling amongst Roman Catholics in Britain

B. Clements (2018), British Journal of Religious Education, 40(1): 44–54.

This paper analyses Roman Catholic attitudes towards publicly funded faith schools. It notes that Roman Catholics have tended to be more supportive of faith schools than other Christian groups (including Anglicans), and that Catholics with higher levels of religiosity show a greater propensity to express support. Using a nationally representative survey of adult Catholics in Britain, the paper shows that Catholic support for faith schools is strongest for Roman Catholic and Anglican schools (with 67.8% and 66.7% in favour respectively), supporting claims that faith schools foster in-group sensibilities. Roman Catholic support for faith schools declines for other faiths (being lowest for Muslim schools), with broadly similar levels of support being shown for publicly funded faith schools for other Christian groups (55%) and faith schools in general (57.4%).

Link to journal

YouGov / Times Survey Results

December 2017

A poll carried out by YouGov and the Times in December 2017 found that most respondents (46% to 29%) did not believe that the government should provide funding for faith schools.

State-supported 'faith schools' make up around a third of schools in Britain. Most are church schools (e.g. Church of England, Roman Catholic) and the rest (around 1%) are non-Christian (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu). Do you think the Government should or should not provide funding for faith schools?

Should: 29%

Should not: 46%

Don't Know: 25%

Link to source

Religious Schools Survey

Populus (May 2017).

According to a survey by Populus in May 2017, the vast majority of respondents (80%) favoured the imposition of a cap on the number of places that could be given to pupils belonging to the religion of the school, and leaving 50% of places for children of other faiths or no faith. The view that faith schools should be able to allocate all their places to children of the same faith as the school was most popular among Jewish and Muslim respondents (with 55% and 43% agreeing respectively).

Q.1. There is currently debate about new state funded faith schools showing preference for, or discriminating against, prospective pupils on faith grounds and the religious background of children. Since 2010 nearly all new state funded schools in England have been permitted to select up to half their pupils on the basis of religion, but no more than 50%. The other places must be left open to children whose parents choose to apply, regardless of what beliefs they have or do not have. Some support this approach, such as to help ensure schools admit a more mixed group of pupils, whereas others think such schools should be able to concentrate on children of the same faith. Thinking about new state funded faith schools showing preference for, or discriminating against, prospective pupils on religious grounds, which of these comes closest to your view?

New state funded faith schools should be allowed to religiously select up to a maximum of 50% of pupils on the basis of faith: 80%

New state funded faith schools should be allowed to select up to 100% of their pupils on the basis of faith: 20%

[Of those selecting the 100% option] 'Which of the following religious groups do you consider yourself to be a member of?'

Christian – Church of England/Anglican/Episcopalian: 21%

Christian – Roman Catholic: 23%

Christian – Methodist: 16%

Christian – Other denomination: 22%

Muslim: 43%

Hindu: 19%

Jewish: 55%

Sikh: 28%

Buddhist: 29%

Other: 14%

None: 15%

Link to source

Religious Schools Survey

Populus (May 2017).

According to a survey by Populus in May 2017, the vast majority of respondents (80%) favoured the imposition of a cap on the number of places that could be given to pupils belonging to the religion of the school, and leaving 50% of places for children of other faiths or no faith. The view that faith schools should be able to allocate all their places to children of the same faith as the school was most popular among Jewish and Muslim respondents (with 55% and 43% agreeing respectively).

Q.1. There is currently debate about new state funded faith schools showing preference for, or discriminating against, prospective pupils on faith grounds and the religious background of children. Since 2010 nearly all new state funded schools in England have been permitted to select up to half their pupils on the basis of religion, but no more than 50%. The other places must be left open to children whose parents choose to apply, regardless of what beliefs they have or do not have. Some support this approach, such as to help ensure schools admit a more mixed group of pupils, whereas others think such schools should be able to concentrate on children of the same faith. Thinking about new state funded faith schools showing preference for, or discriminating against, prospective pupils on religious grounds, which of these comes closest to your view?

New state funded faith schools should be allowed to religiously select up to a maximum of 50% of pupils on the basis of faith: 80%

New state funded faith schools should be allowed to select up to 100% of their pupils on the basis of faith: 20%

[Of those selecting the 100% option] 'Which of the following religious groups do you consider yourself to be a member of?'

Christian – Church of England/Anglican/Episcopalian: 21%

Christian – Roman Catholic: 23%

Christian – Methodist: 16%

Christian – Other denomination: 22%

Muslim: 43%

Hindu: 19%

Jewish: 55%

Sikh: 28%

Buddhist: 29%

Other: 14%

None: 15%

Link to source

Unsettled Belonging: A survey of Britain’s Muslim communities

M. Frampton, D. Goodhart and K. Mahmood MP (2016), Policy Exchange.

This report claims to present 'the most extensive survey to-date of British Muslim opinion'. It finds that a large majority of British Muslims (69%) favour a secular education, which adheres to a shared national curriculum. Just 26% hold the view that a faith education should come from the classroom.

The study found that Muslims expressed higher support for religious-based clothing and gender segregation within state education, and that 53% would prefer to send their children to a school with strong 'Muslim values'. This compared to just 20% of the non-Muslim control group who expressed a preference for sending their children to a school with 'strong religious values' (with which 47% disagreed). At the same time, however, the report also found that Muslim values were thought to be entirely compatible with 'secular' (non-faith-based) education. The report notes that: 'This came through very strongly in the focus groups. Time and again, when asked about education, the priority for our respondents was quality of education, rather than any demand that it be specifically-Islamic'. The study also found that just 26% of British Muslims believed that faith should be taught inside the classroom (48% felt that children should learn Islam in the mosque, and 24% felt that this was something that should take place at home). The report concluded that: 'British Muslims retain an essentially "secular" outlook on the subject of education and this is likely related to views about the purpose of that education'.

Link to report