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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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.

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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.

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Understanding public attitudes in Britain towards faith schools

B. Clements (2010), British Educational Research Journal, 36(6): 953–973.

This paper provides a detailed analysis of different aspects of public attitudes towards faith schools in Britain. It uses data from the British Social Attitudes Survey 2007 to analyse the relationships between attitudes towards faith schools and religious characteristics. The paper finds that Catholics and those who attend religious services regularly, those with higher levels of religious feeling and those with socially conservative beliefs are more supportive of faith schools. Importantly, there was found to be little impact in relation to measures of socio-economic status, except for past or current attendance at a private or fee-paying school of a household member. These findings support critics of faith schools who contend that they promote divisive, in-group dynamics.

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Why are English secondary schools socially segregated?

J. Coldron, C. Cripps and L. Shipton (2010), Journal of Education Policy, 25(1): 19–35.

This paper seeks to explain the persistent social phenomenon of segregated schooling in England, whereby children from families with broadly the same characteristics of wealth, education and social networks are more likely to be educated together and therefore separate from children from more socially distant groups. The operation of these class mechanisms is illustrated by considering the different ways in which segregation is generated in selective, faith and community schools.

The authors claim that the primary reason for this segregation is that more affluent and more highly educated parents are gaining greater access to the better schools, compounding the already existing inequality of educational opportunity between rich and poor. A reinforcing effect is also observed, in which poor pupils educated in schools with concentrations of other poor pupils do not progress as well as they would in a school with a more balanced intake. Conversely, those pupils that are already advantaged and educated with their more affluent peers flourish educationally. This is not only unjust but has a negative impact on attainment and a country's position in the international league tables for educational performance. Socially segregated schooling is also implicated in the reduction of social cohesion and civility.

The paper shows that social segregation in school varies by geographical area but also by the type of school. Using data from the Sutton Trust, it finds that the average proportion of pupils on free school meals in voluntary aided (faith) schools was 5.6% compared with 14.6% for the surrounding areas. The paper also claims that church schools might engage in the covert selection of pupils by social background. For example, about 8% of faith schools (in 2006) asked for details that could facilitate social selection (such as the background of the family or child). The oversubscription criteria of faith schools frequently omitted to prioritise children who were more difficult to educate (e.g. those with special educational needs) and were more complex than those for other types of school. The criterion of religious commitment (verified by reference from a priest) was also likely to favour parents with more time and resources to demonstrate this in the community of the local church. The authors noted that where a faith school was already known to have a highly privileged intake, less affluent parents were less likely to apply.

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A copy of this paper is available to download from ResearchGate.

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Conflicts of ethos: issues of equity and diversity in faith-based schools

G. Mcnamara and J. O'Higgins Norman (2010), Educational Management Administration and Leadership 38(5): 534–546.

This paper, which focuses on the experiences of faith schools in Ireland, highlights a range of problematic issues for schools owned and run by the Catholic Church. Extensive exemptions to employment and equality legislation give schools the power to discriminate against employees and pupils on grounds of ethos and to avoid teaching equality in the field of sex education. Research also shows that faith schools are ten times more likely to be unrepresentative of their local catchment areas than traditional schools, and highlights significant levels of homophobic bullying. The overall impression is that faith schools have become inhospitable places for minority groups, members of which are perceived to be 'outsiders'.

A PDF copy of this paper is available from the Pennsylvania State University repository.

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