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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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.

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.

Post-secular schooling: freedom through faith or diversity in community

J. E. Watson (2013), Cambridge Journal of Education, 43(2): 147-162.

This paper explores the relevance of faith schools in a post-secular society, 'where religious and spiritual pluralism exponentially increases, and belief positions are both polarised and syncretised'. In this context, where faith can no longer be wholly privatised, 'the democratic notion of the common or community school appears even more crucial to address community understanding'.

The paper sets out a detailed overview of some of the most popular arguments in favour of publicly funded faith schools, including claims around parental rights, educational outcomes and the poor quality of secular schools. These arguments are forcefully rejected – parental rights, for example, are rebuffed as impractical, since the state could not realistically provide all religious parents with a right to a place for their child (areas with small religious populations might not be able to sustain a specialist school, while areas with large religious populations might create problems of oversubscription) and ensure that 'choice' was equitably distributed.

The author maintains that the role of education is to expose children to diversity, openness and critical thinking, and to equip them for life in a plural, liberal democracy. The paper concludes by calling for a greater role for secular community schools.

Link to journal

Inter-group contact at school and social attitudes: evidence from Northern Ireland

J. Hughes et al. (2013), Oxford Review of Education, 39(6): 761–779.

This article concerns the relationship between schools that are divided on ethno-religious lines and the implications of this for social cohesion. Examining the impact on outgroup attitudes of pupils attending mixed and separate post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, the analysis shows that intergroup contact is strongly associated with more positive orientations to the ethno-religious outgroup. It finds that integrated schools generally outperformed students in Protestant and Catholic schools on measures of intergroup contact and outgroup attitudes. Students attending relatively homogeneous Catholic and Protestant schools (those having 5% or less outgroup representation in the school) reported equivalent scores on the respective measures. In contrast, students attending more ethno-religiously diverse schools reported more favourable responses. These findings challenge the view that faith schools promote social cohesion by giving children a strong sense of their own identity that makes them more respectful of the beliefs and values of others.

Link to journal

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

Faith in the system? State‐funded faith schools in England and the contested parameters of community cohesion

C. Dwyer and V. Parutis (2013), Transactions, 38(2): 267–284.

This paper examines state‐funded faith schools in England, and how opposition to them has been mobilised and negotiated. The discussion focuses specifically on the role of New Labour's community cohesion policy. This was adopted to combat social and ethnic division after social disturbances in 2001 and required all state-funded faith schools to 'promote community cohesion'. The paper argues that in pursuing the government's policy of community cohesion, faith schools interpreted the concept in ways that allowed them to strategically rework its meaning through their own theological discourses – for instance, by highlighting ways in which faith schools engaged with the local community, by presenting them as places where new immigrants could gain the social capital needed to participate as full members of British society and by extending the definition of 'community' beyond the locality to a wider networked 'global community'.

The paper also shows how these differing constructions of 'community' shaped political negotiations around a new admissions code for faith schools, leading to entanglements between religion and state over the authority to define religious belonging. While the new admissions code was intended to ensure greater equality in the allocation of school places (requiring a proportion of places to be given to pupils from other faiths, or no faith), an unintended and contradictory outcome was that the state sometimes emerged as the arbiter of how religious identification or belonging was measured. Thus, the attempt to regulate faith schools and to ensure compliance with community cohesion measures led to 'unanticipated entanglements of state and religious authority', a situation that was dissatisfactory for both state and religious communities.

Link to journal

Free schools in the Big Society: the motivations, aims and demography of free school proposers

R. Higham (2013), Journal of Education Policy, 29(1): 122–139.

This article examines the role of free schools in the context of the Conservative government's Big Society agenda. It identifies two groups seeking to promote free faith schools – parent-led groups and faith organisations. A majority of both groups claimed to be driven by ideals of service to their local community, rather than evangelicalism, and argued that they sought to establish inclusive rather than segregated schools. However, the majority of faith school proposals also planned to use 50% faith admission criteria and to follow a well-publicised faith ethos. The article argues that, in contrast to claims that the Big Society would promote altruistic behaviour from civil society actors, those actors best able to gain access to state resources brought a range of private and self-interested motivations into the public sector. Rather than being well disposed to meet the complex needs of disadvantaged communities, this process, including the provision of free faith schools, appears capable of diverting state resources towards more advantaged actors.

Link to journal

Contact between Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren in Northern Ireland

R. N. Turner et al. (2013), Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(S2): 216–228.

This paper examines segregation and sectarianism in Northern Irish schools. The study involved pupils from both integrated and non-integrated schools, and sought to analyse some of the key factors influencing attitudes towards people not considered to be part of the in-group (in this case, Protestants or Catholics). The study found that cross-group friendships and extended contact were both closely linked to lower levels of prejudice.

Link to journal

Segregation of schools – the impact on young people and their families and communities

T. Cantle (February 2013), Paper to the Accord Coalition and All-Party Parliamentary Groups, London and Liberal Democrat Conference Fringe meeting (March 2013).

This paper discusses the issue of segregation in schools. It notes that there are a number of ways in which schools can be divided, including ability and location, but notes that: 'By far the most systematic inhibitor of free choice is that of faith – and as the vast majority of faith schools are supported by the state, government must accept responsibility for this restriction'. The author notes that, in the case of faith schools:

People of no faith are effectively excluded from up to one-quarter of schools, and may only be able to apply to faith schools if the schools in question are less popular and do not have sufficient applicants from their faith community. At a local level the choice may be almost non-existent if local schools happen to be faith based.

The author also discusses some of the ways in which these divisions can cause and/or exacerbate social problems, from ethnic segregation to bolstering the power of unelected faith 'leaders'. As the author writes: 'Religious identities often overlap with ethnic identities and faith schools effectively exclude some of the minority communities and can also contribute directly to ethnic segregation'. The paper adds that: 'Faith schools are also part of a system which props up faith leaders and gives them a level of undeserved credence and power'.

Link to paper

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.

Link to journal

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

Leadership and faith schools: issues and challenges

S. Scott and D. McNeish (December 2012), National Centre for Social Research for the Centre for Understanding Behaviour Change.

This report charts the way in which faith schools have responded to opinion polls showing a lack of support for an expansion of faith schools and claims that they undermine social cohesion. One of the main responses here has been for faith schools to downplay their religious characteristics and to present themselves as a positive source of social cohesion. The authors of the report state that: 'As a consequence, some schools have opted to promote social cohesion and downplay the importance of distinctive Christian teaching and Church doctrines'.

A PDF of the report is available from Bristol University. Click here to access.