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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Faith schools: admissions and performance

P. Bolton and C. Gillie (2009), House of Commons library, Standard Note: SN/SG/4405.

This report details the numbers and types of faith schools in the UK, and discusses a range of issues around existing research. The report shows that faith schools scored higher academic results than non-faith schools, but that this gap can be explained by differences in pupil intake.

On the question of attainment, figures show that faith schools tend to get higher educational outcomes than non-faith schools. In 2007/08, 71.3% of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 in faith schools achieved five or more GCSEs or equivalent at grades A*-C, compared to 64.5% of pupils at non-faith schools. On average, Jewish and Muslim secondary schools had the highest results (albeit from a small sample size), followed by 'other Christian', Roman Catholic and Church of England schools. Faith schools overall also performed better in terms of Contextualised Value Added scores by just under 5 points (6 points being the equivalent of one grade improvement per pupil in one exam).

The authors point out that there has been 'little research' into measuring the direct academic effects of a faith school ethos, but research suggests that any attainment gap can be explained by factors such as the prior attainment and background of the pupils. Figures from January 2008 show that 11.2% of pupils at primary faith schools and 11% at secondary faith schools were eligible for free school meals, compared to national averages of 15.6% and 12.9% for non-faith primary and secondary schools. The authors note that: 'The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals at all types of secondary faith schools was less than the proportion of pupils in their local area'.

The authors also show that faith schools have a lower proportion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN). In 2008 1.2% of pupils at mainstream state faith schools had stated SEN and 15.9% unstated special educational needs, compared to 1.7% and 18.9% for non-faith schools. Attainment differences between school types are also discussed. The authors conclude that the evidence points towards the importance of school status, and whether or not a school has autonomy over its own admissions policies and processes.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

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School diversity and social justice: policy and politics

A. West and P. Currie (2008), Educational Studies, 34(3): 241–250.

This paper examines diversity in the English education system and explores tensions between education policy, politics and social justice. The study shows that claims about the higher educational quality of faith schools are 'questionable', noting that research comparing GCSE and national test results (at age 14) for religious and non-religious schools finds any gains for the former being attributed to the quality of the pupils they admit. The authors write that: 'It thus appears that the existence of religious schools privileges some children over others – with fewer children from poor backgrounds attending them', and note that this has 'undesirable consequences in terms of social justice considerations'. The authors go on to show how religious schooling can lead to segregation on religious and ethnic lines.

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Faith‐based schools in England after ten years of Tony Blair

G. Walford (2008), Oxford Review of Education, 34(6): 689–699.

This article presents a review of faith-based schooling in England after ten years of expansion under the governments of New Labour. It charts the growth of faith schools, considers some of the underlying rationales for this programme (based on the belief that a faith ethos would generate higher academic results) and finds that: 'the evidence is at best mixed'. The paper shows that while faith schools have tended to produce higher academic results than non-faith schools, this can be explained by their selection of students from higher social classes, with faith schools taking a lower proportion of pupils who are eligible for free school meals. The author also points out that: 'in value added terms, their success is much less clear'.

The paper goes on to note that many faith groups do not want separate, faith-based schooling for their children and highlights substantial issues of ethnic as well as social segregation resulting from selection processes. It suggests that there is less chance of an education system producing social fragmentation and cultural tensions 'if schools have a mix of children from different social classes, ethnicities and religions. The desire for cultural continuity can be achieved without the need for separation'.

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Allocating pupils to their nearest secondary school: The consequences for social and ability stratification

R. Allen (2007), Urban Studies, 44(4): 751–770.

This study examines the stratified nature of secondary school choice in England. Using data from the National Pupil Database, and focusing on pupils in year 9 (age 13/14) in 2002/03, it found that current levels of sorting (defined as 'pupils who do not attend their proximity allocation school') were around 50%, and noted that: 'grammar schools and own-admissions authority schools are associated with greater levels of school segregation, measured using free school meals eligibility as an indicator of low income'.

The study also found that patterns of school choice and segregation were consistent with existing research on the "cream-skimming" of pupils, and research showing that the role of voluntary aided faith schools in producing post-residential sorting was 'far greater than for foundation schools'. The author notes that voluntary aided schools seemed to be responsible for 'well over half of all cream-skimming' while schools with admissions processes controlled by their local authority 'rarely appear to be cream-skimming'. The report also noted that around one in ten voluntary controlled schools (schools that had a religious character but whose admissions processes were controlled by a local authority) had 'a much lower than expected' proportion of pupils that were eligible for free school meals.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the institutional repository at the University of Central London.

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Never mind the evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools

D. Gillard (2007), Education in England.

This paper reviews faith school developments under the New Labour governments of Tony Blair. It examines the history and the motives behind the expansion of faith schools and provides a critical analysis of issues such as social cohesion, diversity and academic performance. The author rejects claims that faith schools ensure higher academic performance, arguing that any advantages are due to the quality of their intakes, and that 'for all Blair's bluster to the contrary, faith schools are operating a covert system of selection'. The notion that faith schools promote interfaith tolerance and understanding is rejected as being 'equally dubious', and the idea that faith schools provide a special ethos for the development of morality is 'highly questionable' given the poor record of faith groups on issues such as human rights issues and gender and sexual equality.

The author goes on to show a lack of public and professional support for faith schools (polling evidence shows that just 11% of the general public and 9% of head teachers are in favour) and suggests ulterior motives for the expansion of faith schools based on Blair's support for selection and the privatisation of education. The paper concludes by arguing that religious groups see faith schools as a way of arresting the decline of faith in the UK. The author writes: 'Children in faith schools are seen as the only hope for the future. They are a captive audience for religious mumbo jumbo ranging from the plain stupid (creationism) to the thoroughly evil (misogyny and homophobia)'.

This article is freely available online.

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School choice, equity and social justice: The case for more control

A. West (2006), British Journal of Educational Studies, 54(1): 15–33.

This paper examines school choice and the extent to which admissions to state-funded secondary schools in England address issues around equity and social justice. The author argues that 'schools with responsibility for their own admissions are more likely than others to act in their own self-interest by "selecting in" or "creaming" particular pupils and "selecting out" others'. 'In short, the evidence suggests negative consequences for equity and social justice once schools become responsible for school admissions'. The article goes on to suggest that, for this reason, individual schools should not be responsible for admissions and that this should be controlled by a local authority or non-partisan body.

Although the paper does not address the issue of faith schools directly, the core argument is applicable to the debate around faith schools given the extent to which faith schools are able to control their own admissions processes.

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The Social Composition of Top Comprehensive Schools

Rates of Eligibility for Free School Meals at the 200 Highest Performing Comprehensive Schools, The Sutton Trust (January 2006).

This report draws on data provided by the National Foundation for Education Research and is based on a survey of the top 200 comprehensive schools in the UK. The survey found that faith schools were over-represented in this category, amounting to 18% of all secondary schools in the country but 42% of the top 200 comprehensives. However, the survey also found that faith schools were considerably less representative of their neighbourhoods, noting that there was a substantial gap between the proportion of pupils in faith schools who were eligible for free school meals compared to the average for their local area. Overall, 5.9% of pupils attending the faith schools in the sample were eligible for free school meals, compared to 5.3% for non-faith schools, but the proportion of pupils in their local area was 15.2% (and 8.6% for non-faith schools). This gave faith schools a gap of 9.2% compared to just 3.3% for non-faith schools.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

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Combining multilevel analysis with national value-added data sets – a case study to explore the effects of school diversity

I. Schagen and S. Schagen (2005), British Educational Research Journal, 31(3): 309–328.

This study examines the value-added results of secondary education, drawing on a national dataset, comparing 380,000 pupils' Key Stage 2 levels in 1996 to their GCSE performance in 2001. The results of the analysis highlight the impacts of different school types and selection processes on pupil progress. The study found that faith schools as a whole 'were significantly ahead on only two outcomes: total point score and number of GCSE entries', which was explained as faith schools encouraging students to take an additional GCSE. The differences between Roman Catholic, Jewish and 'other Christian' schools were not significantly different from Church of England schools in most cases. Roman Catholic schools performed above the norm in English. Jewish schools performed better in terms of average GCSE point score, but not in English, mathematics or science. The authors conclude that: 'On the whole, faith schools seem to make very little impact'.

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School Admissions: A Report of the Social Market Foundation Commission

M. Haddad (ed) (July 2004).

This report examined the issue of school admissions and fairness in secondary schools. It found 'little evidence to support the notion that faith schools educate children better', but supported the continued presence of faith schools in the state sector on the grounds that this was a lesser of two evils (the view of the Commission being that 'preventing religious schools from operating in the state sector would simply lead them to move into the private sector'). As such, the preferred option was to allow faith schools to continue, 'but with open enrolment and without any power to select on the basis of faith'. The authors noted that there was a liberal argument in favour of allowing parents to choose schools on the grounds of religion, but that it was not acceptable for schools to choose parents on religious grounds.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

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The Impact of Specialist and Faith Schools on Performance

S. Schagen et al. (2002), National Foundation for Educational Research LGA Educational Research Programme, Report 28.

This paper provides a detailed analysis of the performance of specialist and faith schools (Roman Catholic, Church of England, 'other Christian' and Jewish) at Key Stage 3 and GCSE levels. Taking prior attainment and other variables into account, the study found that Catholic schools were above the norm in some areas, but that overall 'the data suggests that the performance of Roman Catholic schools is basically the same as non-faith schools'. Church of England schools were found to be 'perhaps slightly ahead, but only just'. The report showed that, while Church of England and Catholic schools did better than the norm on some outcomes, considering KS3 and GCSE performances in the round indicated that there was 'no clear pattern of enhanced performance' and that the likelihood was 'that the good "raw" results achieved by many church schools reflect the nature and quality of their intake'. The authors conclude that: 'There is no evidence to suggest that an increase in the number of faith schools would improve overall performance'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.