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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How many poor children go to faith schools?

S. Rogers (5 March 2012), The Guardian.

A study of data from the Department for Education, conducted by The Guardian, found that state faith schools in England were 'failing to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area'. The analysis found that 73% of Catholic primary schools and 72% of Catholic secondary schools had a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than the average of all children of school age in its local authority. The respective figures for the Church of England were 74% and 65.5%. This compared to 51% of non-religious primary schools and 45% of non-religious secondary schools.

The study also found that 76% of Catholic primary schools and 65% of Catholic secondary schools had a smaller proportion of pupils that were eligible for free school meals than was representative of their postcode. The respective figures for the Church of England were 63.5% and 40%. In contrast, the figures for non-religious schools were 47% and 29%.

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The place of religion in public life: school ethos as a lens on society Hemming, P. J. 2011, Sociology 45(6), pp. 1061-1077.

This paper examines the differences between a Community school and a Catholic school in England. The Community school ethos was based around values of inclusion, diversity and respect for difference, the Catholic school ethos drew much more on an exclusive Christian ethic. The two study schools attributed very different roles to religion as part of this, with the Community school granting RE a rather limited role in the curriculum, and a tendency to offer a generic spiritual experience, rather than one directly connected to formal religion. It can be implied that this offers children wider knowledge of other topics which may help them in working life and academics rather than a strong heavy religious-based curriculum.

Furthermore, the paper explores how in keeping with liberal approaches to religion in public life, this placed religion firmly within the realm of home/civic space, rather than state institutional space. In contrast, religion and collective religious practices were a major part of everyday life in the Catholic school, both in terms of RE, assembly and across the school in general, through prayer, services, the curriculum, and symbols and displays in the physical environment. Spiritual and moral provision was also linked more to religious doctrine, as part of an ethos that was much less influenced by liberalism where the role of religion was concerned.

Overall, this paper proves how the community school advanced in areas of diversity and respect for the difference which are essential elements for a modern school. In contrast, the Catholic school focused on the advancement of its religious values which in turn resulted in a curriculum that was focused on one religion, and its values rather than looking at how other individuals live. Thus, this paper puts forward an argument that the values and the morality of faith schools are lacklustre in comparison to advanced diverse community schools.

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

Praying for success? Faith schools and school choice in East London

T. Butler and C. Hamnett (2012), Geoforum 43(6): 1242–1253.

The article discusses research into perceptions of educational choice amongst a group of middle-class parents in East London. It focuses on the way in which faith schools are being drawn into the mainstream discourse of choice, driven by the attractions of ethos, perceptions that faith schools contain 'people like us' and good academic standards. The paper argues that increased demand for faith schools is contributing to a long-term process of secularisation, in which the religious ethos is being undermined by an educational ethos based around the elision of school attainment and social composition, but that these changes continue to perpetuate social inequalities in the education system. In this respect, the socio-economic inequalities present within faith schools can become self-sustaining, even when the faith element is in decline.

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Are separate schools divisive? A case study from Northern Ireland

J. Hughes (2011), British Educational Research Journal, 37(5): 829–850.

This article uses qualitative methods to examine social identity and intergroup attitudes amongst children attending a state-controlled Protestant school in Northern Ireland. The study found that most pupils had minimal or superficial contact with Catholics, and suggests 'a relationship between ethnic isolation experienced by children and negative intergroup social attitudes'. Although the study was based in the context of Northern Ireland, the findings have strong implications for faith schooling in the UK as a whole, where issues of social segregation are common. The study notes that: 'the separateness of the school [is] … likely to contribute to strong "own" group bias, stereotyping and prejudice', and concludes that greater inter-group contact 'is seen to be effective by reducing inter-group anxiety and promoting trust and friendship, which in turn lead to self-disclosure, perspective taking and greater mutual understanding'.

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Educating for religious citizenship: multiculturalism and national identity in an English multi‐faith primary school

P. J. Hemming (2011), Transactions, 36(3): 441–454.

This article examines informal religious citizenship education in schools, focusing on an English multi-faith community primary school. It explores the way in which religious minorities were recognised and accommodated, highlighting the significance of religion to debates about multicultural citizenship and the construction of British national identity.

Using semi-structured interviews with staff, parents and children, the study found that Christianity was the dominant religion in the school. 'Major Christian festivals were the non-negotiable aspects of school life, and other religious occasions would only be celebrated if time and resources allowed'. It also found that 'Christian festivals, such as Christmas nativities, were a taken-for-granted part of school life', that Christianity was generally accepted 'as the default religion' and that this was often linked to constructions of national identity (such as identifying England ⁄ Britain as a 'Christian country'). These findings support the view that, while the liberal state maintains an officially neutral position regarding religious affiliations, 'majority populations still tend to enjoy a certain amount of privilege over minorities because of formal cultural and religious arrangements'. The author notes that while the school tried to take an open and accommodating approach to differing religious requests (such as food and attendance), provisions for religious minorities 'only went so far'.

Although the paper is not about faith schools per se, and although the author goes on to suggest that these findings highlight the need to provide support for minority religious needs, the study nevertheless highlights the way in which religious identity can serve as a marker of, and a driving factor for, social divisions within an educational context.

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A PDF of this paper is available from Brighton University.

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Measuring Social Segregation Between London’s Secondary Schools, 2003 – 2008/9

R. Harris (June 2011), Working Paper No. 11/260, Centre for Market and Public Organisation, Bristol Institute of Public Affairs.

This working paper examines patterns of social segregation between London's state-funded secondary schools from 2003 to 2008. It finds 'sizeable differences' between schools in the proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, and shows that faith schools under-recruit from this category of pupil compared to other local schools. The author writes:

It is notable that voluntary aided (VA) Church of England (CoE) and Roman Catholic (RC) schools – ones that set their own admissions criteria and can include commitment to the religious group or denomination amongst them – under-recruit FSM eligible pupils, on average and relative to their competitors, whereas voluntary controlled (VC) schools, which use the LEA admissions criteria, actually slightly over-recruit on average.

A PDF copy of this paper is available for download.

Click here to access.

Where tradition and “modern” knowledge meet: exploring two Islamic schools in Singapore and Britain

C. Tan (2011), Intercultural Education, 22(1): 55–68.

This paper explores ways in which Muslim schools assert their cultural heritage and negotiate learning in the modern age. It draws on a case study of two schools: one in Singapore and one in the UK, and examines common challenges faced by the students and teachers in their quest for a balanced curriculum. It claims that there is a fundamental difference between Islamic schools and secular state schools in how they view 'truth', 'knowledge' and other attendant concepts. Examples of this include the resistance of many Muslim students and parents towards the teaching of evolution as 'truth' in biology, and the introduction of sexuality knowledge in schools. While studying in an Islamic school allows the students to avoid these religiously objectionable topics, there remains an epistemological gap between Islamic schools and secular state schools. A 'modernist' view – one that is accepted in many secular state schools – states that 'truth' and 'knowledge' could be 'discovered', at least provisionally, and are subject to revisions by human beings. In contrast, many traditional Muslims see the starting point of all subjects (including ecology, the social sciences and the natural sciences) to be revealed scripture, which is not open for discussion or alternative interpretation. The author claims that these opposing views towards knowledge might explain the resistance and animosity that some Muslims have towards secular state schools, perceiving them to be 'westernised' and inimical to their religious and cultural heritage.

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A copy of this paper is available on ResearchGate.

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Fifty-odd years of inter-group contact: From hypothesis to integrated theory

M. Hewstone and H. Swart (2011), British Journal of Social Psychology 50: 374–386.

This paper claims that the contact hypothesis is not merely a speculative claim but has now reached the stage of a fully-fledged theory. The authors argue that while more work needs to be done and while more empirical evidence needs to be gathered, the contact view now has growing support from psychologists. Although the paper does not address the issue of faith schools directly, the claims of the contact thesis are frequently used by critics of faith schooling, who argue that it creates social divisions by segregating pupils and thereby reducing contact between people from different social groups.

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A copy of this paper can be downloaded from ResearchGate.

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Oldham lives: still parallel or converging?

S. Burgess and R. Harris (Summer 2011), Research in Public Policy.

This article assesses the issue of social and ethnic segregation, ten years after civil disturbances spread through a number of towns in the north of England. Focusing their attention on Oldham, the authors find little evidence of greater integration in schools. A number of potential explanations for this are considered, including the use of geographically based admissions criteria (which the authors deem to be an unlikely cause), rigid social attitudes and the prevalence of faith schools. More than one third of primary schools and over two fifths of secondary schools in Oldham are either Roman Catholic or Church of England with faith-based admissions criteria. The authors conclude that: 'If such practices have cultural and ethnic underpinnings – which they do – then including them among the admissions criteria is unlikely to aid mixing within schools'.

A PDF copy of this paper is available to download from the institutional repository at the University of Bristol.

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Faith Schools We Can Believe In:

Ensuring that tolerant and democratic values are upheld in every part of Britain's education system. J. Bald et al. (2010), Policy Exchange.

This report by Policy Exchange examines the issue of extremism in the UK's education system. It claims that: 'Britain's faith schools – and other schools – are increasingly vulnerable to extremist influences' and that: 'Our education system … is not equipped to meet such challenges'. Of particular concern is the regime for inspecting religious schools. The report highlights potential conflicts of interest in the inspection process, which allows inspectors to be members of the same faith as the school they are inspecting. The authors write: 'Confessional allegiance is not an appropriate basis upon which to conduct inspections for the totality of the school's activity'. They add that: 'For schools of a religious character, an inspection should include how and what pupils learn about other religions and whether there is evidence of any religious bias in the secular curriculum – including the teaching of Creationism in science'. The report calls for the promotion of community cohesion by schools to be 'replaced by a sharper anti-extremism focus, combined with a clearer sense of British identity'.

A PDF copy of this report is available for download.

Click here to access.