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.

Performance and selection

A core feature of the debate around faith schools is the claim that they provide better education outcomes than non-faith schools. The evidence in this section shows that any educational advantages for faith schools are small and are explained by factors around pupil intakes, such as religiously selective admissions arrangements, rather than a faith ethos.

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Minority faith schools as claims for cultural recognition? Two examples from England

J. Pecenka and F. Anthias (2014), Identities, 22(4), 433–450.

This paper examines the grassroots interests and perspectives of minority groups involved in mobilising behind faith schooling. In particular, it looks at the motivations of local campaign groups for two minority faith schools, one Sikh and one Muslim. The study finds that support for these faith schools was not always rooted in issues around identity and calls for recognition. Rather, most campaigners were motivated by beliefs around academic performance, school discipline and their experiences of discrimination. Importantly, none of these factors were seen to be linked to, derived from or dependent upon any particular 'ethos' that a faith school might claim to have. These findings, which challenge claims of an intrinsic link between the religious ethos of a faith school and its academic performance, were said to 'undermine the assumption that the minority faith schools in question are institutions inspired by religious grounds'. Instead, the authors point out that the two faith schools involved in the study were seen not as a means of promoting religious identities, but 'as instruments in a strategy of resisting or escaping racism'.

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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'.

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Worse than an educated guess: British Humanist Association response to Theos’s report on “faith’ schools”

British Humanist Association (October 2013).

This report by the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) provides a critical response to an analysis of research into faith schools published by the Christian think-tank, Theos. The report claims that Theos 'cherry-pick' evidence to provide a more favourable impression of faith schools than is warranted by the available evidence and reach 'a number of conclusions without any justification for them having been provided'. The report also claims that the Theos analysis contains a number of factual inaccuracies (e.g. wrongly referring to the 2009 Admissions Code, rather than the revised 2012 version) and ignores a range of important factors. This includes a failure to consider the decline of religious practice (over 13% of secondary school places in England and over 17% of primary school places are restricted on the basis of faith, even though weekly church attendance in 2005 was just 6.3% of the national population), a failure to consider the impact of faith schools that do not belong to the Church of England or the Catholic Church and a lack of attention to issues around human rights and discrimination. Theos are also accused of failing to accurately report research showing that faith schools take fewer children eligible for free school meals compared to non-faith schools and that any educational advantages conferred on faith schools (such as higher outcomes in terms of academic grades) can be explained by the quality of their pupil intake rather than any particular 'ethos' or 'faith school effect'.

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

Selective Comprehensives: The Social Composition of Top Comprehensive Schools

The Sutton Trust (June 2013).

This study looks at publicly available data on the proportion of pupils eligible for, and claiming free school meals (FSM) in the top 500 comprehensive state schools (as measured by GCSE results), and considers the extent to which they are representative of their localities and school type. The study finds that faith schools are over-represented amongst the schools, accounting for 19% of schools nationally but 33% of the top 500. The study also finds that faith schools are slightly more likely to take pupils eligible for free school meals than other schools in the top 500 (at 7.9% compared to 7.5%) but overall their FSM intake nationally is 'significantly lower', at 11.7% compared to a national average of 17.2%.

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

Narrowing down the determinants of between-school segregation: an analysis of the intake to all schools in England, 1989–2011

S. Gorard, R. Hordosy and B. Huat See (2013), Journal of School Choice, 7(2): 182–195.

This article examines the social and economic segregation of pupils between schools in England, using data for all school intakes from 1989-2011. It claims that the mix of students in a school has an influence on how students are treated, on how well they are taught, on how well they learn, on the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils and on wider school outcomes (such as students' sense of justice) and longer-term outcomes such as levels of aspiration. Students growing up in more socially segregated settings tend to have less qualified teachers, substandard materials, more dilapidated buildings and experience higher crime and generally poorer local services. In contrast, the most egalitarian systems tend to have the highest average attainment in formal tests and the highest percentage of very skilled students. Data show that the segregation of students (even if unintentional) is socially detrimental.

The paper goes on to argue that schools that select their intake in terms of religion might also tend to increase segregation by ethnic origin, parental income and education, or social class. Therefore, the authors claim that a society that wishes to enjoy the advantages of mixed school intakes needs to do more than simply offer choice. The authors call for a national school system that does not select by attainment, aptitude, student background or faith.

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A PDF copy of this paper is also available from Durham University. Click here to access.

Praying for success? Faith schools and school choice in East London

T. Butler and C. Hamnett (2012), Geoforum 43(6): 1242–1253.

The article discusses research into perceptions of educational choice amongst a group of middle-class parents in East London. It focuses on the way in which faith schools are being drawn into the mainstream discourse of choice, driven by the attractions of ethos, perceptions that faith schools contain 'people like us' and good academic standards. The paper argues that increased demand for faith schools is contributing to a long-term process of secularisation, in which the religious ethos is being undermined by an educational ethos based around the elision of school attainment and social composition, but that these changes continue to perpetuate social inequalities in the education system. In this respect, the socio-economic inequalities present within faith schools can become self-sustaining, even when the faith element is in decline.

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Faith primary schools: Better schools or better pupils?

S. Gibbons and O. Silva (2011), Journal of Labor Economics 29(3): 589­–635.

This paper estimates the effect of attending a state faith school on primary education achievement in England. Drawing on administrative student-level data, and controlling for prior attainment and postcode, the study finds that while pupils progress faster in faith primary schools, 'all of this advantage is explained by sorting into faith schools according to pre-existing characteristics and preferences'.

The data show that pupils in schools with autonomous governance and admissions structures (a category that includes faith schools) progress marginally faster. A pupil starting in an autonomous school at age seven could expect to be one percentile higher in the distribution of pupil attainments by age eleven than a comparable pupil attending a standard secular non-autonomous school, even when these two pupils live in the same postcode and go on to attend the same secondary school. However, the study also found that pupils in faith schools that were under local authority control did not progress any faster than similar pupils in comparable secular schools. As such, the researchers conclude that any performance impact from faith schools seemed to be closely linked to their autonomous governance and admissions arrangements, and not to their religious character.

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A copy of this paper is also available from the London School of Economics.

Click here to access.

Why do faith secondary schools have advantaged intakes?

The relative importance of neighbourhood characteristics, social background and religious identification amongst parents. R. Allen and A. West (2011), British Educational Research Journal, 37(4): 691–712.

This paper examines the reasons why secondary schools with a religious character have pupil intakes that are of a higher social background and ability than their secular counterparts, and assesses the extent to which faith schools contribute to socially segregated schooling. Using data from the National Pupil Database and the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England, the authors show that parents who have a religious affiliation are more likely to be better educated, belong to a higher occupational class and have a higher household income. The authors argue that it is these factors that make the greatest contribution to faith schools' advantaged intakes.

The paper shows that Church of England and Roman Catholic schools have fewer children eligible for free school meals (a crucial indicator of poverty) than schools without a religious character (at 11.5%, 13.6% and 14.7% respectively). It also contends that, compared to non-religious schools, secondary schools with a religious character have a higher proportion of top ability pupils and are more affluent in their intake than the neighbourhoods they are located in.

The authors maintain that the complex nature of many school admission policies might enable parents from higher social class backgrounds to negotiate the admissions process more effectively and understand how to meet specific admissions criteria.

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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.

Quasi-regulation and principal – agent relationships

A. West, H. Pennell and A. Hind (2009), Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 37(6): 784–805.

This article examines the issue of school choice through the lens of the English market-oriented reforms, focusing on changes to the admissions criteria and practices of state-maintained secondary schools in London between 2001 and 2005. It found that fewer voluntary aided schools gave priority to children from lower social class or disadvantaged backgrounds, and that, 'while local authorities act broadly in line with government guidance and regulations as the agent of the government, schools acting as agents do not necessarily do so and more appear to select particular groups of children as opposed to others'. The authors called for greater government regulation of admissions procedures to prevent manipulation by individual schools.

Although the study did not directly engage with the issue of faith schools (it did note that: 'Religious criteria were only used by voluntary-aided schools'), the central argument is nevertheless applicable to the general debate around faith schools given the extent to which faith schools are able to control their own admissions processes.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the institutional repository at the London School of Economics.

Click here to access.