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.

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Gay in Britain: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People’s Experiences and Expectations of Discrimination

Stonewall (2013).

This report examines the experiences and expectations of LGBT people in respect of discrimination. It finds that more LGBT people express concern about the treatment that they would receive if they enrolled their child in a school outside local authority control. A total of 13% of LGBT people said that they expected to be treated worse than heterosexuals when enrolling their child in primary or secondary free schools and academies, compared to just 5% for maintained schools. This figure rose to 61% in the case of faith schools. A significant majority also feared discrimination if they wanted to become more involved with a faith school on a formal level. A total of 70% of LGBT people expected to face barriers because of their sexual orientation if they applied to become a school governor. This figure rose to 78% in the case of black and minority ethnic gay people.

The report called on academy and faith school trusts to 'reassure gay parents that they will not be treated less favourably by having trust-wide policies to tackle homophobia and training for member schools. Trust prospectuses and open evenings should make clear that their schools value diversity and difference'.

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

The School Report: The experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools in 2012

Stonewall (2012).

This report by Stonewall examines the experiences of gay young people attending school in 2012. The report finds that on the issue of bi- and homophobic bullying, faith schools fared worse than other types of school. The proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) pupils reporting that their school said homophobic bullying was wrong was 50%, while the figure for faith schools was 37%. In faith schools, 36% of LGB pupils said that teachers did not challenge the use of homophobic language (compared to 26% in non-faith schools), while 22% said that teachers and other school staff made homophobic comments (the figure for non-faith schools was 17%). Just 25% of LGB pupils at faith schools said that their schools responded quickly to cases of homophobic bullying (compared to 31% for non-faith schools).

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

Opportunities for Religious Organisations in the UK’s new school system

The paper proposes how schools run by religious organisations, are reasonable in their actions to draw criteria for the selection of worthwhile activities from their specific conceptions of human flourishing. The author explains this with theological selection criteria is likely to yield curricula distinguished by their emphasis on activities such as the inquiry into the meaning of life and forms of service. In this way, curricula can be faith-based without being specifically confessional and therefore is a softer version of an original, strict faith-based school although warns of the possibility of other problems in faith schools.

A crucial statement is made If religious organisations were convinced to eschew confessional RE and collective worship would be a crucial victory in the war on indoctrination, but encouraging them to use theological criteria to select curriculum activities opens the door to a subtler form of indoctrination. A child whose education brings home to her the intrinsic value of inquiry into the meaning of life and forms of service may be more inclined to adopt a specific conception of human flourishing that gives priority to these activities.

This paper believes that lives are not being imparted by employing psychological manipulation or pressure. If my education has stirred in me a passion for helping others, I shall be more drawn to conceptions of human flourishing which emphasise altruism than those which do not, but it hardly follows that such a conception has been imposed on me or that my capacity for rational belief-formation has been impaired. And third, it is difficult to see how the influence of this kind could be avoided. Any curriculum which includes some but not all worthwhile activities will be more congruent with some worldviews than others. When it comes to delimiting the range of activities into which children are initiated in school, we have no choice; when it comes to imparting beliefs by non-rational means, we do. Overall, the paper is more ambivalent about faith schools and puts takes the stance that meaningful activities which teach individuals behaviours that are positive should be put forward.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download Click here for the journal

The Church School of the Future Review

Church of England, Archbishops' Council Education Division (March 2012).

This report outlines Church of England thinking on the future of its schools. It highlights the challenges faced, discusses the defining characteristics of a Church of England school, and considers strategies for promoting their growth. A survey of participants in the review found that 57.7% feel the current agenda in education poses a 'highly significant' (16%) or 'significant' (41.7%) risk to the Church of England school system. A further 26.1% consider it to be a medium risk, and 10.1% a slight risk. A section called 'Secularist attack' also notes 'a concerted attack on the core elements of the Church school identity. Most of the challenges and claims made are without foundation or are matters of principle on which disagreement is always possible'.

While the report denies that Church of England faith schools are 'faith schools', on the grounds that they are for the whole community, it goes on to highlight a variety of ways that its schools can be used to promote an Anglican worldview. It notes, for instance, that: 'Distinctiveness is about more than organisational arrangements and designation as a school of religious character. It must include a wholehearted commitment to putting faith and spiritual development at the heart of the curriculum and ensuring that a Christian ethos permeates the whole educational experience'. It goes on to say that every child should have 'a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ', and that this notion applies 'equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith'.

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

Defining and assessing spiritual health:

A comparative study among 13- to 15-year-old pupils attending secular schools, Anglican schools, and private Christian schools in England and Wales. L. J. Francis, G. Penny and S. Baker (2012), Peabody Journal of Education, 87(3): 351–367.

This study examines the views of pupils attending three different types of schools: publicly funded schools without a religious character, state-funded schools with an Anglican character, and new independent Christian schools (not publicly funded). The findings highlight substantial differences between the levels of 'spiritual health' experienced by pupils within these types of schools.

Pupils in non-religious and Anglican schools show strong similarities on a range of personal and communal issues (for instance 65% of pupils in non-religious schools and 64% of pupils in Anglican schools feel that their life has a sense of purpose, 71% and 72% say life is worth living and 62% and 64% are concerned about poverty in the developing world). Pupils in new Christian schools show higher agreement on some of these statements: 82% feel as though their life has a sense of purpose and 82% express concerns about poverty in the developing world.

The survey also finds that pupils attending religious schools have much higher levels of belief in God. Just 22% of pupils in non-religious schools express belief in God, compared to 35% of pupils in Anglican schools and 87% of pupils in independent Christian schools. The respective figures for belief in life after death are 36%, 40% and 75%. The proportions agreeing with the statement that 'the church seems irrelevant to life today' are 32%, 30% and 9%.

The authors claim that these findings challenge the view that Anglican schools engage in indoctrinatory practices, although the higher levels of religious belief can be interpreted as highlighting the extent to which religious schools do promote particular kinds of faith-based worldviews. Indeed, in the case of independent Christian schools, the authors note that the findings appear to be consistent with the aims of these schools, 'which seek to create a radical alternative educational environment different from that found in schools without a religious character within the state-maintained sector'. The similar responses from pupils on personal and communal issues in non-religious and Anglican schools can also be seen to offer a challenge to the view that Anglican schools offer a distinctive educational experience beyond the promotion of religious beliefs.

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Christ at the Centre: Why the Church Provides Catholic Schools

M. Stock (2012), Catholic Truth Society, London.

This report by the Catholic Truth Society sets out rationale for the provision of schools by the Roman Catholic Church. It highlights a number of motives, some of which can be interpreted as a concern to promote a particular worldview. The report notes, for example, that: 'The first key reason why Catholic schools are established … is to be part of the Church's mission in education, to place Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church at the centre of people's lives … First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth'. Describing this as an 'evangelising mission', the report adds that: 'To put Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church at the centre of the educational enterprise is the key purpose of Catholic schools'. Other principal objectives included the promotion of policies 'that reflect and embody the teaching of Christ and the Catholic Church' and which 'through external and internal symbols and displays, manifest the centrality of Christ and the Catholic faith'.

The report adds that 'the admission criteria of Catholic schools should be formulated in such a way that Catholic children and young people are always given priority in the allocation of school places over and above all other applicants'. The author notes: 'A Catholic school is never simply a school for those who choose it. A Catholic school is always, first of all, a school for Catholics'.

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

Christian distinctiveness in Church of England schools

H. Jelfs (2010), Journal of Beliefs and Values, 31(1): 29–38.

This study examines notions of 'distinctiveness' in Church of England schools. It uses data collected from a survey of 45 church schools together with ethnographic case studies of three primary schools, involving the analysis of school documents, participant observations and semi-structured interviews with head teachers, teachers, chairs of governors and parish priests. The findings suggest that 'distinctiveness' is understood by school members in two ways: first, by developing and maintaining 'strong links with the Church and a significant religious dimension in the corporate life of the school', and second by 'seeking to establish a way of life informed by Christian beliefs'. This includes 'a belief that Christian faith offers a foundation for the lives of children and young people'.

The paper claims that Church of England schools have not kept pace with the changing cultural and social context of twenty-first century Britain, noting that 'schools do not have a clear understanding of how their Christian character relates to the core pedagogical practices of teaching, learning, and curriculum'. Nevertheless, while the article is supportive of faith schools, the findings of this study can be seen to challenge claims that faith schools act inclusively and can be interpreted as supporting the view that they seek to promote a particular religious worldview.

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A tale of two schools: comparing and contrasting Jacobus Fruytier Scholengemeenschap in the Netherlands and Bradford Christian School in England

M. Pike (2010), Journal of Beliefs and Values, 31(2): 181–190.

This study draws on interview and observation data to compare the aims, admission policies and curriculum of two 'strong' Christian schools, one in the Netherlands and one in England. The paper highlights the heterogeneity of faith schools, arguing that they need to be judged on the specific beliefs that they seek to promote (thus 'moderate' faith schools can be more intolerant than 'strong' faith schools, if the belief system of the 'strong' school includes aspects of tolerance). The author claims that while the evidence from the two schools involved in the study does not support claims of indoctrination (the idea that 'strong' faith schools believe they have a right to pass on their beliefs to their pupils), respect for the religious autonomy of pupils should be a critical determinant of state support. Thus, the paper concludes that: 'Arguably, only those schools recognising the inherent autonomy of their students in religious matters should receive the support of the liberal state. We should also want to know the extent to which their students would be encouraged to choose to be tolerant of others'.

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‘How to Regulate Faith Schools’ M. Clayton, A. Mason, A. Swift & R. Wareham, Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy Impact No. 25, 2019.

The authors explain the key arguments concerning faith schools. On the one hand, parents have the right to decide how – and with whom – their children are educated. On the other hand, the paper reinforces the assertion that schools with a religious character are often perceived to be 'good schools' in terms of their academic performance which is a false claim. The authors argue that parents' rights over their children's education do not include the right to send them to a school so continuous with the culture at home that it risks depriving them of the capacity for autonomy. This is often the case for faith schools, particularly whereby certain values and issues are undermined for example education regarding the LGBTQ community. Furthermore, adds to the topic of whereby some faith schools undermine key British values and therefore an assumption can be made how faith schools can undermine a healthy, tolerant liberal democracy.

The paper states that the common suggestion that faith schools are better than their non-faith counterparts involve, at best, a limited view about the educational goods that we properly look to schools to produce. Human rights law means that parents must indeed be free to decide their children's education in the light of their own religious and philosophical commitments supporting the case against faith schools. But the authors explain that does not imply that the state should support religious schooling that risks children's autonomy and it does not prevent the state's requiring children to learn about alternative ways of life, and about their own and others' moral and civic status as free and equal persons, even where doing so runs counter to parents' preferences.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download Click here for the journal

Responses of three Muslim majority primary schools in England to the Islamic faith of their pupils

J. Ipgrave, J. Miller and P. Hopkins (2010), Journal of International Migration and Integration 11: 73–89.

This paper examines the responses of three English primary schools (one Muslim faith school and two community schools) to the education of their Muslim pupils. It focuses on the approaches of teachers and school leaders to the faith backgrounds of their pupils, their constructions of Islam for these educational contexts, and their preparation of Muslim children for a religiously plural Britain. The authors observe that debates around the education of Muslim children in England commonly centre on two themes: (1) linkages between the affirmation of children's religious background and their engagement and achievement in school (a view typically promoted by supporters of Muslim schools), and (2) concerns that increases in distinctive separate education for Muslim pupils intensify existing trends towards segregation.

The study found that all three schools allowed pupils and staff to wear Islamic dress, provided halal food in the school canteen, made allowances to enable older pupils to participate in Ramadan and gave pupils time off school for Eid Celebrations. It also found variation in Islam-related curriculum provision. The Muslim faith school was characterised by a clear intention to frame educational provision around the tenets of Islam, being grounded in the idea that 'solutions to the problem of Muslim youth could be found by providing them with the sense of confidence in their religious identity'. The authors write: 'The school's policy is not just to make incidental links with Islam but to present the whole of learning through an Islamic lens'. In contrast, at one of the community schools in the study: 'The neutrality of the staff on religious matters is stressed. School assemblies are viewed more as learning experiences than as acts of worship'. The authors claim that the Muslim school had 'clearly opted for a degree of separation', although they added that the promotion of religious faith was oriented towards seeing religion as a social resource, and that 'a large part of the school's responsibilities towards its pupils' development is their preparation for wider British society'.

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This paper is also freely available as a PDF from the University of Warwick institutional repository.

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