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.

Social cohesion

The evidence in this section shows that faith schools undermine social cohesion by segregating pupils on religious, ethnic, racial and social grounds. By reducing contact between people from different social groups, faith schools foster exclusionary in-group dynamics that are detrimental to the wellbeing of a liberal, multicultural society. This evidence strongly undermines claims by supporters that faith schools facilitate social integration, promote a communal religious ethos and help to integrate minority faiths into the life of the nation.

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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.

Non-governmental religious schools in Europe: institutional opportunities, associational freedoms, and contemporary challenges

M. Maussen and V. Bader 2015), Comparative Education, 51(1): 1–21.

This paper focuses on faith schools in a European context and highlights some of the key factors driving change in this area. These include structural pressures on religious schools (such as transformations around age, religion, ethnicity and secularisation), political forces such as the mediatisation and personalisation of politics, changes in party systems and electoral change, as well as the growth of "secular progressive" voices in public debate, transformations in the relationship between state and society (e.g. changes in the governance of domains traditionally of relevance to religion, such as health and education), and processes of Europeanisation, in which cultural and religious diversity is embedded in supranational human rights regimes, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR).

Against this backdrop, the study highlights a rise in public funding for religious schools across Europe, and questions why this is taking place. One explanation is that the demand for faith-based schooling is on the rise due to the idea that faith schools obtain better educational outcomes. While much of the paper consists of a broad overview of the macrodynamics around the European debate on faith schools, the author also argues that religious schools function as domains of exclusion, creating problems for those attempting to justify continued state funding.

Link to journal

A PDF copy of this paper is also available on ResearchGate. Click here to access.

Racial Discrimination by Religiously Selective Faith Schools: A Worsening Problem

Accord / Fair Admissions Campaign (2015).

The study examines the way in which socially selective admissions processes for faith schools can lead to indirect racial discrimination. The report provides a range of evidence to show how social selection takes place, and argues that this also has a racial dimension given that more affluent families are better equipped to navigate the system. The report states that: 'Indirect racial discrimination by religiously selective schools should worry those concerned about cohesion in society', and calls for schools to be less religiously selective 'or for them to move away from religious selection altogether'.

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

Kingdom United? Thirteen Steps to Tackle Social Segregation

Social Integration Commission (March 2015).

This report from the Social Integration Commission explores ways of promoting social mixing between people from different ethnic and age groups and income backgrounds. It notes that faith schools have ongoing challenges in ensuring that pupils are able to mix with children from different backgrounds, and calls on the Department for Education to approve applications for new faith schools only in circumstances where they have 'a clear plan for pupils to meet and mix with children from different faith backgrounds and communities'.

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

Divisive Faith Schools Urgently Need Reform

J. Romain (2015), The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate, Civitas.

This article discusses the variety of ways in which faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion. The author claims that: 'while many faith schools have laudable aims, others have been set up precisely because they wish to avoid any integration with wider society'. They add that: 'In no other part of public life or state-funded institutions can you be selected or turned away because of your religion: not in hospitals, libraries, the police force, the civil service or anywhere else. It is illegal and morally unthinkable. Yet that is exactly what happens with state-funded faith schools'.

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

Attitudes towards school choice and faith schools in the UK: A question of individual preference or collective interest?

S. Patrikios and J. Curtice (2014), Journal of Social Policy, 43(3): 517–534.

The study focuses on the attitudes of the general public towards school choice and faith-based schools, drawing on data from British Social Attitudes, the 2007 Scottish Social Attitudes survey and the 2007 Wales Life and Times survey. This article tackles the promotion of faith-based schools as an integral part of the New Labour agenda to widen school choice by giving parents in England the opportunity to choose between different types of schools. This was presented by the government as a way of meeting individual needs and improving academic standards. In this context, faith-based schools came to be regarded as one of the main ways of fulfilling this agenda. The authors argue that, rather than reflecting a supposedly asocial concern with choice, support for diversity of educational provision might be rooted instead in collective – and potentially antagonistic – social identities.

The reason for this, the authors claim, is that faith schools are designed primarily to accommodate the interests of a particular group and can be a trigger to stimulate feelings of religious identity and of the group interests attached to that identity. As they write: 'one of the key goals of faith-based education in Britain has been to help ensure the survival of a minority group identity rather than simply to accommodate the aspirations of individual parents'. As such, faith-based schooling might invoke images of 'us' and 'them' (and a desire to protect 'us' from 'them'). The article uses the example of Catholic schools. If these provide a mean of protecting the interests of the religious group, rather than as a mechanism for facilitating individual choice, then Protestants might view the provision of Catholic schools as a threat to the country's predominantly Protestant heritage, thereby creating intergroup conflict. This is not however, confined to the pious. The non-religious might equally view faith schools as a threat to secular society.

The article finds that high public support for the principle of choice in public services does not necessarily reveal support for diversity of provision. While support for school choice in general was high across the UK (England 82%, Scotland 76%, N. Ireland 84% and Wales 81%), support for choice involving faith schools was low (England 31%, Scotland 24%, N. Ireland 32% and Wales 36%). Support for faith schools was higher amongst Catholics than Protestants and people of 'no religion' (see Table 5 below).

Table 5. Support for faith schools %

Catholic (England 58%, Scotland 68 %, N. Ireland 54%, Wales 67%)

Protestant (England 33%, Scotland 16%, N. Ireland 17%, Wales 41%)

No Religion (England 22%, Scotland 18%, N. Ireland 16%, Wales 29%)

This leads the authors to note that:

Even in an age of new religious movements, religious syncretism, believing without belonging, and, of course, a general decline in traditional religious observance, the provision of faith-based schooling can still invoke religious identities that are far more powerful than any abstract commitment to choice. In short people's attitudes towards faith-based schools may have much more to do with their collective religious identity than with any demand to see individual preferences reflected in how public services are delivered.

The study concludes that public support for the principle of school choice does not necessarily extend to the provision of faith-based schools. 'Rather people's attitudes to such schools reflect their religious identity and how far the provision of faith-based schools might be thought to promote the values and interests of the group with which they identify'.

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This paper is also available from the University of Strathclyde institutional repository. Click here to access.

The admissions criteria of secondary Free Schools

R. Morris (2014), Oxford Review of Education, 40(3), 389–409.

This paper analyses the admissions criteria used by the first two waves of secondary free schools in England. The type of criteria and their ranked order is explored and their potential impact on the school composition is considered. The findings demonstrate the diversity of criteria being used by this new type of school and give some insight in to how free schools appear to be prioritising access. Whilst the admissions policies of the majority of secondary free schools appeared to be adhering to the 2012 Admissions Code legislation, the study highlights the influence that such criteria might have in creating intakes which are less balanced in terms of socio-economic status, ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The study finds that faith was sometimes placed ahead of other admissions criteria, such as the presence of a sibling at the school, whether a child had medical or social needs, and proximity to the school. One school in the study included place of worship alongside their faith criteria. This use of faith criteria was found to increase the ability of the schools to segregate on social grounds, with a potentially negative impact on social and academic outcomes. The author concludes by calling on free schools to give priority to children who are eligible for free school meals and to consider the use of random allocation as a fairer way to allocate places.

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Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice

O. Christa et al. (March 2014), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This paper assesses evidence for a contextual effect of positive intergroup contact, drawing on seven large-scale surveys. The study found a reliable contextual effect in multiple countries, and the authors note that: 'These findings reinforce the view that contact has a significant role to play in prejudice reduction, and has great policy potential as a means to improve intergroup relations'. The study provides support for those who argue that faith schools promote segregation and undermine social cohesion.

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Who owns our schools? An analysis of the governance of free schools in England

R. Higham (2014), Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(3): 404-422.

This paper addresses an issue that is neglected by existing studies of faith schools, namely: school ownership. In particular, the study examines the effect that the purchasing of schools by private companies (including faith groups) has on education. According to figures from the Department of Education, at the time of writing 95 new school proposals had been made, and 29 of these were by faith groups. The author argues that ownership allows governance to become an additional lever through which certain groups can mould state education in their own interests (including increased profitability). This raises issues around inclusion. The author notes that: 'the demographic makeup and social networks of a majority of local civil society groups do create risks of socio-economic stratification and/or faith and social group segregation'.

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.