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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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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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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Building a Sense of Community: Children, Bodies and Social Cohesion Peter J. Hemming, Brunel University

The author outlines processes that took place within two primary schools to promote a sense of community and belonging. This feeling of togetherness was achieved through the repetition of embodied rituals, routines, practices and events and occurred in a non-religious sense in both of the schools. However, the Catholic school was also able to draw on a wide range of religious rituals for community building, leading to a more tightly knit but less inclusive collective, particularly for those children who were from minority religious backgrounds. This displays the great social divisions that faith schools create across Britain.

In contrast, the Community school took a much more inclusive approach that, because of the fewer rituals used, resulted in a slightly weaker sense of in-group togetherness. This pattern was repeated through how both schools engaged with their wider communities. The Catholic school focused more exclusively on the local parish community, whereas the Community school had more of an inclusive responsibility towards the neighbourhood community. These processes again highlighted the importance of embodied meetings and practices for making sense of the concept of community.

Furthermore, the paper researches how the stance of the British Government currently remains committed to the role of religion within the education system and is keen to stress the place of faith-based schools in promoting social cohesion between different ethnic and religious groups. While some faith schools may be able to work towards developing social cohesion, research has shown that religion also has the potential to exclude, particularly in this case whereby most children had created relationships with individuals of the same faith as them and not branching out to mix with individuals with the different social, religious or economic background to them.

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

Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion

R. Berkeley (December 2008) with research by S. Vij, Runnymede Trust.

This extensive report publishes the findings of a Runnymede Trust research project designed to find out whether a school system with faith schools could also promote equality and cohesion. The project involved a wide range of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, education experts, religious leaders, local authority officials and pupils.

The report makes a number of observations. Faith schools are criticised for being exclusive, for promoting singular faith identities and for their inaction on issues of social cohesion. The report notes that a commitment to the promotion of cohesion 'is not universal, and for many faith schools not a priority' and that, despite a statutory duty to promote community cohesion, 'many faith schools have done very little to engage with community cohesion initiatives'.

The report further notes that faith schools 'have not developed a distinctive approach to learning about diversity' (expressing particular concerns 'that faith schools do not put enough emphasis on LGBT issues') and claims that any advantages they might have in terms of educational performance might be due to their selection practices. Faith schools are found to take a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than non-faith schools and to be 'disproportionately likely' to have used unfair admissions practices, such as interviewing parents and asking about their ability to contribute funds. This, the report claims, 'creates the perception that faith schools are exclusive rather than inclusive institutions with little interest in being schools of and for their local community'.

Although the report supports the inclusion of faith schools within the school system, it concludes that: 'the most effective way of enabling faith schools to meet their obligation to promote cohesion' is for them to be opened up to pupils from a wider range of faith and non-faith backgrounds.

Overall, the report makes six recommendations:

  1. Faith schools should end selection on the basis of faith. The report notes that: 'Faith schools should be for the benefit of all in society rather than just the few … With state funding comes an obligation to be relevant and open to all citizens … All parents should be given access to what faith schools claim is a distinctive ethos … At the moment, faith can be used by parents as a means of ensuring social exclusivity within a school'.
  2. Children should have a greater say in how they are educated. The report asserts that children's rights are as important as parents' rights, and that, while much of the debate around faith schools has focused on issues of parental choice, children's views have been excluded. As the authors put it: 'Faith schools in particular emphasize parental choice … but do not champion the rights of children'.
  3. RE should be part of the core national curriculum. The report called for all schools to follow a common curriculum for religious education 'as a minimum guarantee of learning about the role of faith in society, critical thinking about religion, ethics, and the diversity of faith traditions'.
  4. Faith schools should also serve the most disadvantaged. Here it was noted that, despite claims to serve the most disadvantaged in society, 'faith schools educate a disproportionately small number of young people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale'. This was attributed to selection procedures based on faith, which gave an advantage to more privileged socio-economic groups. The report further noted that: 'When challenged on this data, faith school providers seem to be more keen in their public announcements to discuss statistical validity than engage with a mission to serve the most disadvantaged'.
  5. Faith schools must value all young people. This recommendation focused on the way in which faith schools privileged the role of faith as a marker of identity over other identifying markers, such as ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. The report noted that: 'given their emphasis on values and moral education, faith schools have not developed a distinctive approach to learning about diversity'.
  6. Faith should continue to play an important role in our education system. In making this final recommendation the report asserted that 'faith schools remain a significant and important part of our education system', but reaffirmed the above problems that faith schools faced.

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School diversity and social justice: policy and politics

A. West and P. Currie (2008), Educational Studies, 34(3): 241–250.

This paper examines diversity in the English education system and explores tensions between education policy, politics and social justice. The study shows that claims about the higher educational quality of faith schools are 'questionable', noting that research comparing GCSE and national test results (at age 14) for religious and non-religious schools finds any gains for the former being attributed to the quality of the pupils they admit. The authors write that: 'It thus appears that the existence of religious schools privileges some children over others – with fewer children from poor backgrounds attending them', and note that this has 'undesirable consequences in terms of social justice considerations'. The authors go on to show how religious schooling can lead to segregation on religious and ethnic lines.

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Faith schooling: implications for teacher educators. A perspective from Northern Ireland

N. Richardson (2008), Journal of Beliefs and Values, 29(1): 1–10.

This article examines the effects of sectarian divisions within the Northern Ireland education system on the structure of teacher training. The study is based on a survey of the relationship between two religiously separated teacher education institutions. The author notes that the current system of separating teacher training institutions on the basis of faith 'is counter-productive in relation to the task of building a more inclusive, cohesive society', and argues that: 'If teachers are to be role models of mutual understanding, inclusion and respect for diversity, if they are to set and contribute to the kind of classroom and whole-school ethos that encourages the acceptance and celebration of diverse identities, then they need experience for themselves of that diversity'. The paper concludes by calling for the development of 'an ethos of "shared faiths", with full respect for those who are of no faith'.

Although this paper focuses on the context of Northern Ireland, the social and cultural impact of selecting teachers on the basis of their faith has clear implication for the wider debate around faith schools. Supporters of faith schools claim that the use of faith as a criterion for the employment of teaching staff is essential for upholding the ethos of faith schools, but as studies such as this demonstrate, selecting teachers in this way can lead to a narrowing of educative possibilities with potentially corrosive effects on social cohesion and diversity.

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Faith‐based schools in England after ten years of Tony Blair

G. Walford (2008), Oxford Review of Education, 34(6): 689–699.

This article presents a review of faith-based schooling in England after ten years of expansion under the governments of New Labour. It charts the growth of faith schools, considers some of the underlying rationales for this programme (based on the belief that a faith ethos would generate higher academic results) and finds that: 'the evidence is at best mixed'. The paper shows that while faith schools have tended to produce higher academic results than non-faith schools, this can be explained by their selection of students from higher social classes, with faith schools taking a lower proportion of pupils who are eligible for free school meals. The author also points out that: 'in value added terms, their success is much less clear'.

The paper goes on to note that many faith groups do not want separate, faith-based schooling for their children and highlights substantial issues of ethnic as well as social segregation resulting from selection processes. It suggests that there is less chance of an education system producing social fragmentation and cultural tensions 'if schools have a mix of children from different social classes, ethnicities and religions. The desire for cultural continuity can be achieved without the need for separation'.

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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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