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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Religion and belief discrimination and the employment of teachers in faith schools

L. Vickers (2009), Religion and Human Rights 4: 1–20.

This article considers the extent to which the right to freedom of religion for teachers is sufficiently protected in English schools, focusing on the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 and the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998. The author argues that the current legislative framework 'provides inadequate protection for the right of teachers to enjoy freedom of religion and belief' and maintains that the ability of faith schools to discriminate on employment grounds (for instance, voluntary controlled faith schools can appoint a head teacher and up to a fifth of its teaching staff using a religious criteria, ensuring that they are of the same faith as that promoted by the school) reduces the available career and employment opportunities available to teachers that do not adhere to the faith of the school. Given the preponderance of Christian faith schools in the UK, the effect is that 'Christian teachers may come to enjoy significant advantages in career terms over staff of other faiths, or those with no religion'.

A PDF copy of this paper is available to download.

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Legal issues for faith schools in England and Wales

P. Petchey (2008), Ecclesiastical Law Journal, 10: 174–190.

This article considers the question of whether political criticism of faith schools could give rise to legal challenges under human rights legislation. The paper discusses a range of human rights laws, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and argues that 'legal challenges are to be expected'. The author notes that the debate around faith schools raises 'profound questions as to the proper scope of education in a liberal society as well as to difficult questions of social justice', and claims that the political settlement on faith schools might not stand up to legal scrutiny, not least on issues around indoctrination.

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Catholic schools in Scotland and divisiveness

S. J. McKinney (2008), Journal of Beliefs and Values, 29(2): 173–184.

This study examines the extent to which faith schools in Scotland are divisive. Focusing on Catholic schools, and drawing on interview data with academics, Catholic leaders and educationalists, it finds that faith schools are divisive in five key ways: (1) their state funding; (2) their use of selective admissions processes; (3) social perceptions of their divisiveness; (4) their effects on social cohesion; and (5) their effects on the autonomy of children. The study finds that faith schools in Scotland are seen to be divisive socially, religiously and in terms of attitudes and beliefs that create, or promote, an alternative identity. The Catholic school system is also perceived to be a privileged system, with unfair employment opportunities for Catholic teachers in Catholic schools.

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Religion, modernity and social rights in European education

E. Zambeta (2008), Intercultural Education, 19(4): 297–304.

This paper explores the role of religion in European education systems. It considers the historical context for the presence of religion in education systems (seeing this as a means of social control) and claims that the place of religion in state-funded schools raises 'fundamental questions regarding the social role of education institutions in modern representative democracies' with critical implications 'for the conceptualization of democracy, religious freedom and social rights'.

The paper claims that: 'the Enlightenment quest for social progress, rationality and emancipation, to a large extent, gave way to the aim of maintenance of social stability and reproduction of existing social hierarchies', and argues that enlightenment thought is now 'in danger of being silenced' in schools due to the growth of religious fundamentalism. The author writes that the expansion of religious schools is creating a 'new politics of segregation within education', and warns that faith schools can promote xenophobia, racism and homophobia. The article observes that: 'When, in the name of safeguarding religious identity, young people are deprived from access to the basic premises of modern knowledge and science, religion is transformed into a force of obscurantism'.

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Religious control of schooling in England: diversity and division

S. Ward (2008), Intercultural Education, 19(4): 315–323.

This paper argues that faith schools have a negative impact on community cohesion and calls for their removal. It claims that: 'the idea that the religious ethos of faith schools improves educational performance is illusory', and argues that: 'the very definition of a faith school is that it must be exclusive and therefore divisive'. The author notes that:

There are only two distinctive features of faith schools: the curriculum and the selection of pupils. The faith school can preach and proselytize about a single religious faith, and it is allowed to select its pupils on the basis of their commitment to the faith. All other features claimed by faith schools such as a strong moral ethos, tolerance, good behaviour, high achievement are possible in a community school.

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Intercultural education: religion, knowledge and the limits of postmodernism

D. Coulby (2008), Intercultural Education, 19(4): 305–314.

This paper discusses the role of religion in school systems. After highlighting some of the destructive aspects of religion (such as the opposition of the Catholic Church to the use of contraceptives during the AIDS pandemic) the paper examines the role of knowledge and tolerance advocated in the Enlightenment, and presents a critical account of the role of religion in educational settings in various parts of the world. The author claims that this is exacerbating 'the cultural division of communities'.

The paper argues that schools and universities are 'one of the main sites for the production and reproduction of religion', particularly when this involves the teaching of religion and religiously inscribed versions of history, and claims that: 'Religious nationalism still thrives in the schools of the UK'. It goes on to criticise the expansion of faith schools under the governments of New Labour, claiming that this 'adds an important additional divide in communities already fractured along the lines of race', and takes issue with claims about the popularity of faith schools, claiming that: 'a significant majority of people would prefer religious institutions to be kept out of schools'.

The paper concludes by considering the challenge that the institutionalisation of religion in schools poses to intercultural education and to postmodernity.

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This paper is also freely available as a Word document from the University of Athens institutional repository.

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Spiritual development in church schools – a survey of Welsh head teachers’ perceptions

G. Davies (2007), International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 12(3): 307–324.

This article reports on a survey of attitudes towards 'spiritual development' by the head teachers of church primary schools in Wales. Although there is a shared agreement on the meaning of the term 'spiritual development', with high levels of agreement on statements such as developing 'an ability to relate to others' (100%), 'a sense of community' (99%) and 'a personal identity' (98%), explicitly Christian elements are also strongly present. In total, 83% of head teachers agree with the view that spiritual development for pupils in church schools should mean 'developing Christian beliefs' and 79% agree that it should refer to 'exploring Christian spirituality'. In contrast, the view that this means 'exploring the spiritual within non-Christian faiths' is accepted by 53% of respondents.

The survey also finds that 66% of head teachers feel that church schools 'should provide opportunities for spiritual development in all subjects of the curriculum and not just RE and worship', and 54% agree that 'spirituality cannot be divorced from religion'. Just 9% of head teachers agree with the view that: 'Promoting spiritual development should be left to the home and the church and not be the province of schools'.

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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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Independent Christian schools and pupil values: an empirical investigation among 13–15-year-old boys

L. J. Francis (2005), British Journal of Religious Education 27(2): 127–141.

This study compares the attitudes of teenage boys attending 114 non-denominational state- maintained schools and 19 independent Christian schools. Data are taken from a survey administered to all year 9 and year 10 classes throughout England and Wales. The study finds clear values differences between the pupils attending the two types of school. Pupils attending the Christian school report higher levels of personal wellbeing (such as a higher level of purpose in life) in certain areas, although overall, pupils at non-denominational schools report being happier at school by 73% to 66%. The two groups show similar results on issues such as worries about school work, concerns about exams and the importance of hard work.

Clear differences are found in levels of religious belief and moral attitudes, with pupils attending the Christian schools showing a higher level of biblical literalism and a greater degree of moral conservatism. In all, 85% of pupils in Christian schools claim to believe in God (compared to 40% of pupils in non-denominational schools), 89% believe that 'Jesus really rose from the dead' (compared to 28% of pupils at non-religious schools), 82% agree that 'God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh' (compared to 19%) and 67% hold the view that Christianity is 'the only true religion' (shared by just 13% of pupils at non-denominational schools).

On moral issues, 64% of pupils attending Christian schools claim that it is wrong to have sex outside marriage (compared to 13% of non-denominational pupils), 70% think that homosexuality is wrong (compared to 21%), 73% feel that abortion is wrong (the figure for pupils at non-religious schools is 39%) and 41% say that divorce is wrong (a view held by 15% of pupils at non-religious schools).

While the author holds a positive view of these findings (claiming that pupils attending Christian schools 'are more likely to be protected from boys who hold liberal attitudes toward alcohol, tobacco and sex'), the figures can be interpreted as evidence for the view that religious school seek to inculcate their pupils with a particular worldview. Indeed, the author notes that: 'In many ways the distinctiveness of the "Christian" community is being reproduced within the Christian school'.

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Against faith schools: a philosophical argument for children’s rights

R. Marples (2005), International Journal of Children's Spirituality, 10(2): 133–147.

This paper claims that faith schools are incompatible with the rights of children and the society to which they belong. It argues that while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that parents have the right to ensure 'education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions', no such rights exist. The idea of parental rights is seen as a form of property claim and is a breach of a child's moral and cognitive autonomy. The author states that: 'Those who would frustrate, either intentionally or unwittingly, a child's capacity for independent thought, are denying the child right to flourish', and claims that the purpose of a faith school is to engage in a form of indoctrination, wherein a certain religious view is promoted over all others. As such, faith schools 'represent a real and serious threat to children's autonomy, especially their emotional autonomy' and are 'incompatible with the aims of education required by a liberal democracy'.

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