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.

Briefing>>> | Download the research bank as a PDF >>> | Share on Twitter>>>

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'.

Link to journal

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.

Link to journal

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.

Link to journal

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

Click here to access.

Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children

R. Brown, A. Rutland and C. Watters (2007), Universities of Sussex and Kent, ESRC Report Reference No: RES-148-25-0007.

This project examined the relationship between young children with immigration backgrounds and their peers from the majority in the host society. It focused on the issues of identity and acculturation processes and their implications for psychological well-being and social acceptance, centring on the development of children's identities and acculturation orientations between 5-11 years old. Data are drawn primarily from a 12-month longitudinal study of 398 students from over 20 schools.

The study highlights the importance of school diversity, with higher levels of diversity being positively related to higher self-esteem, fewer peer problems and more cross-group friendships. According to the authors, these findings 'show that school ethnic composition can significantly affect the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes'. The report concludes that: 'These findings speak against policies promoting single faith schools, since such policies are likely to lead to reduced ethnic diversity in schools'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

School Admissions: Fair Choice for Parents and Pupils

S. Tough and R. Brooks (June 2007), Institute for Public Policy Research.

This report argues that the current admissions system for school places is a cause of segregation by social class and ability and is likely to lead to systematic unfairness. This is especially the case for schools that are their own admissions authorities (such as faith schools), which are found to be more unrepresentative of their local areas than schools with admissions that are controlled by the local authority. The authors claim that a system of fair choice would take into account the need to achieve a balanced intake in every school, and call for a system of area-wide banding for all local authorities in order to ensure that schools admit pupils of all abilities. The report argues that this should apply equally to faith schools, meaning that 'religious faith would no longer take strict precedence over all other factors in allocating places'. They argue that this approach would also 'be compatible with schools maintaining their own distinct ethos, religious or otherwise'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Sharing crisps with someone different?

Social Cohesion, Diversity and Education Policy. I. Bruegel (August 2006), Submission to the Commission on Cohesion and Integration.

This report, which was submitted to the Commission on Cohesion and Integration, explores research into children's friendships in 12 English primary schools between 2003 and 2005. It found that school friendships 'cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds' and observes that 'the positive benefits of mixed primary schooling, particularly for white children, extend into the early years of secondary school'. The research also shows 'that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children's experiences in mixed schools'. The report concludes by calling on the commission 'to consider how far policies of enhanced school choice and the retention of existing faith schools have hindered integration'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy

I. Bruegel (August 2006), Families and Social Capital ESRC Research Group, London South Bank University.

This study examined patterns of children's friendships in 12 English primary schools with significant variation in ethnic and faith diversity. The findings support claims that regular contact between members of different groups provides positive social outcomes. The children involved in the study 'saw faith schools as isolating groups of children from one another', and the report noted that: 'day-to-day contact between children has far more chance of breaking down barriers between communities, than school twinning and sporting encounters'. It concludes by stating the need to consider 'How far policies of enhanced school choice and the retention of existing faith schools have hindered integration'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Without prejudice: an exploration of religious diversity, secularism and citizenship in England

(With particular reference to the state funding of Muslim faith schools and multiculturalism). K. Moti Gokulsing (2006), Journal of Education Policy, 21(4): 459–470.

This paper examines the issue of religious diversity, with particular reference to the state funding of Muslim schools and their impact on secularism, citizenship and multiculturalism. The author suggests that New Labour's policies on education were contradictory – promoting an enterprise culture through knowledge and skills with secular outcomes, but at the same time pursuing an increase in state-funded faith schools.

The paper goes on to discuss the English, French and US systems of dealing with religious diversity in schools, and questions whether faith schools contribute to the common good rather than the particular good of the faith community. The author notes that: 'The problem of Britain as a pluralist society is to find some social cement to ensure that people with different moral religious and ethical values as well as social, cultural and linguistic traditions can live together with a degree of harmony', but argues that while faith is an integral part of the daily life of many communities, 'religion approaches life in terms of non-negotiable absolutes whereas education is about challenges to and changes of often strongly held views'. The paper concludes that 'secularism and citizenship in schools are not best served by the state funding of faith schools', and makes a number of proposals for educational reform.

Link to journal

Panel Report, Oldham Independent Review

D. Ritchie (11 December 2001).

This independent review into the civil disturbances that took place in Oldham in 2001 identified the segregated nature of the town's school system as a key contributor to underlying ethnic divisions. It noted the 'divisive' nature of faith secondary schooling in the town, pointing out that three of its faith schools (Blue Coat, Crompton House and Our Lady's) admitted no Muslims, and called for 15-20% of school places to be open to pupils of non-Christian backgrounds (claiming that: 'it is possible to admit a significant number of adherents of other faiths without fundamentally undermining a school's ethos'). The report further noted that: 'The problem of segregation would only get worse with the increase of single faith schools'.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.

Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team

T. Cantle (2001), The Cantle Report, Home Office, London.

An investigation by the Independent Review Team headed by Ted Cantle (charged with examining the issue of community cohesion after civil disturbances struck a number of northern towns in 2001) identified a variety of problems. A key factor was faith schools. The report found a lack of ethnic diversity in many faith schools, noting that this was not simply due to the ethnic composition of the local area but could be due to the admissions policies of the school. As the author wrote: 'One C of E school for instance in the midst of an Asian community had a policy whereby pupils had to produce a letter from their local vicar to prove they and their parents were regular church goers. Consequently, Muslim parents rarely bothered to apply to send their children to this school and were effectively excluded from it'.

The report went on to observe how the lack of diversity within a school contributed to a lack of diversity in wider social networks, claiming that the promotion of cultural knowledge and understanding outside the school 'would be easier where the intake had a better mix of cultures and faiths, as this would also allow friendship and parental networks to naturally develop more easily. We are concerned that some existing faith schools appear to be operating discriminatory policies where religious affiliations protect cultural and ethnic divisions'.

The report went on to call for schools to try and limit their intake from one culture or ethnicity, and to offer at least 25% of places to reflect other cultures or ethnicities within the local area.

A PDF copy of this report is available to download.

Click here to access.