Faith schools - Frequently Asked Questions

Faith schools - Frequently Asked Questions

The existence of faith schools actually restricts choice for many parents.

Faith schools are often defended in terms of parental choice. However, the proliferation of faith schools serves to restrict choice for parents who do not want a faith-based education for their children, or who do not share the religion of their local school. In some parts of the country, parents are left with little other option but to send their child to a school with a religious ethos. In 2017 18,000 families were sent to faith schools against their preference.

According to research in a 2018 report by the National Secular Society (The Choice Delusion)

  • Almost three in ten families across England live in areas where most or all of the closest primary schools are faith schools. There is significant regional variation and the problem is more prevalent in rural areas. However, even in urban areas around one in four families live in areas with high or extreme restrictions.
  • In 43.4% of rural areas restrictions on non-faith school choice are categorised as "high" or "extreme". In fact, 53% of rural primary schools are faith-based.
  • 20.6% (7,727) of those who missed out on their first choice of a non-faith primary school in September 2018 were assigned a faith school. This includes 1,398 people who had made all their preferences (typically five) for a non-faith school.

Consider this: in 2019 only 12% of British people identified as Anglican (including just 1% of people aged 18-24). Yet over 20% of state schools in England are Church of England. The disproportionately high percentage of Church of England schools, combined with the increasingly competitive nature of school places, invariably means that many families who are not Anglican will have little choice but to send their child to an Anglican school, even if that is not what the family wishes.

This problem isn't limited to Church of England schools. In recent years the shortage of school places has seen local authorities attempting to place children of atheist and Christian parents in Sikh schools and in one case a child from a Muslim family was allocated a place in an Orthodox Jewish school.

Though religious organisations want more faith schools, most parents and the general public just want good local schools. Research shows that most parents choose schools based on their locality and academic standards – very few choose faith schools for their religious characteristic.

But if a family who are not of the faith still wish to send their child to a faith school (perhaps because it is the closest to their home, or for some other reason not related to religion), they can still be turned away. Desperate families sometimes lie about their faith, attend church, or even have their child baptised into the faith of the school, in order to increase their chances of getting in. In this way, religious selection in faith schools unfairly limits parental choice.

Schools and academies with a religious designation are exempt from equality law when it comes to admissions. When Voluntary Aided faith schools and religious academies are oversubscribed, they are permitted to use religious criteria to give priority in admissions to children, or children of parents, who practice a particular religion. In many cases schools will require evidence of baptism or religious practice from a minister of religion.

Quite simply, families of no religion, or of the "wrong" religion, are discriminated against.

This is in spite of the fact that the vast majority of voters, including those from every religion surveyed, disagree with religious selection in school admissions!

A move towards an inclusive and secular education system would mean no child would be discriminated against on account of their parents' religion or belief, and that all schools would be equally appropriate for parents of all faith backgrounds.

Nothing suggests there's something magical about a 'faith ethos' when it comes to academic success.

Where church schools do achieve marginally better results, it is usually down to faith-based selection which also leads to social selection which unfairly benefits middle class and better-off parents.

Research published in 2016 by the Education Policy Institute found that after adjusting for "disadvantage, prior attainment and ethnicity," pupils in primary schools with a faith ethos "seem to do little or no better than in non-faith schools".

Pupils in secondary schools with a faith ethos record only "small average gains" over non-faith schools or "just one-seventh of a grade higher" in GCSE results. The Education Policy Institute study concluded that such minute gains came with a risk "of increased social segregation". It also noted that "the average faith school admits fewer pupils from poor backgrounds than the average non faith school." Faith schools can operate extremely convoluted admissions procedures and many are able to select their pupils from more affluent backgrounds than non-faith schools."

Research consistently reveals that faith schools are among the most socially selective in the UK. A 2024 report from The Sutton Trust found faith schools have disproportionately low numbers of pupils elligible for free school meals.

A 2017 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that there is "no evidence" to suggest denominational schools in Scotland achieve better results than their non-denominational counterparts.

In some cases, the influence of religion on education may even be detrimental to some results. In 2017, academics at Leeds Beckett and Missouri universities published a paper arguing that excess time spent on religion in schools harmed progression in other subjects including maths and science.

The statistics suggest faith schools are not popular.

A 2014 Opinium survey found 58% of the adult population oppose faith schools and only 30% say they have "no objection" to faith schools being funded by the state.

A 2013 YouGov survey found only one third of adults in Britain approve of state funding for faith schools. Nearly half actively disapprove, and the rest say they 'don't know'. Furthermore, only a quarter who might have school-age children said they would send them to a faith school.

In the same survey, respondents said academic standards matter most in choosing a school. 70% said they would choose a school on the basis of its academic standard; 23% said they would choose on basis of ethical standards; 5% said they would choose on the basis of giving a "grounding in faith tradition"; and only 3% for "transmission of belief about God".

Faith schools are also not popular among teachers. According to a 2019 TeacherTapp survey, 59% of teachers in England support an end to new faith schools and 51% support ending state funding for faith schools.

The teaching of basic morals is not solely the domain of faith schools. All schools teach children basic values such as honesty; integrity; compassion; tolerance; and many others. There is no evidence that faith schools do it better.

All maintained schools in the UK have to promote basic human values in education. Under section 78 of the Education Act (2002) schools in England are required to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils.

Within this, all schools must actively promote the values of "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs".

These and basic human and civic values, such as compassion, truthfulness, tolerance, respect, responsibility, forgiveness, generosity and justice are often promoted as uniquely religious in faith schools, for example as 'Christian values', but this is untrue and biases children's religious outlook, painting non-Christians as morally inferior. SIAMS reports (inspections of CofE faith schools by the Church) often criticise schools when they promote values such as compassion without presenting them as being uniquely Christian.

Education about ethics and morality in schools should be based around the universal principles of reason, empathy and the concept of fundamental human rights, rather than forced through the lenses of religious teachings.

The state has a duty to provide schools and to respect parents' religious freedom. The case law is clear that this doesn't create a duty to provide faith schools.

You certainly don't need faith schools to cater for families of different religions in the UK. Schools that are open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children whatever their religion and belief backgrounds do that by default.

While it is understandable that there are parents who wish for their child to be raised according to their religious tradition, they don't have the right to that via the state, and the general taxpayer should not be the one to foot the bill. Religion and belief communities exist to promote their worldviews, schools don't. Faith schools undermine many parents' ability to raise their children in accordance with their religion/belief.

As the government's freedom of religion or belief toolkit says: "Human rights treaties give parents and legal guardians the right to educate their children in accordance with their religion and philosophical convictions, and children should not suffer discrimination because of this. The state is not obliged to actively participate or provide resources to assist parents in such religious education; parents do not have a right to state funding for confessional religious teaching or religious schools that are in line with their own beliefs."

It's also a mistake to assume that religious people necessarily want faith schools. Many people of faith are opposed to religious discrimination, don't see faith inculcation as the state's role, or have other reasons for supporting inclusive schools.

People live out their religion or belief in many ways. We don't need faith-hospitals, or faith-job centres or any other faith based/divided public service to enable people to exercise their religion. The UK is unusual in having state funded faith schools, many countries with higher levels of religiosity don't have them.

An inclusive school would be secular – that is it would neither be specifically religious or atheist; it would fulfil the educational requirements of all children as individuals. There's nothing anti-religious about schools that are open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children, whatever their religion and belief backgrounds.

A secular education system is perfectly consistent with protecting individuals' religious freedom.

Faith schools build division into society and undermine religious freedoms.

Faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster the segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines and are antithetical to freedom and equality.

Organising children and young people's education around religious identities is the worst possible response to Britain's growing religious diversity. Schools are our golden opportunity to foster understanding and tolerance amongst tomorrow's generation. It is utterly misguided to squander this opportunity by continuing to fund and promote faith-based education.

In Northern Ireland, faith schools have been an unmitigated public policy disaster. As Britain becomes increasingly religiously diverse it needs to avoid heading in that direction.

Some faith schools are more harmful than others. It's particularly sinister that some of them seek to shield children from secular knowledge and actively turn pupils against the society in which they will grow up. And even faith schools which do not do this legitimise the idea that inculcating religion is a valid purpose of education – meaning they validate the promotion of intolerant attitudes elsewhere.

Traditionally CofE faith schools were seen as more 'light touch' but parents, and staff at these schools report an increasing pressure to promote a more rigorous religious ethos throughout all aspects of school life. They legitimise the idea of organising state education around religious identity/inculcation, opens the doors for the worst aspects of faith schools.

Faith schools of one type lead to other religious leaders demanding state schools of their own. It's inconsistent to argue for Christian faith schools, but against Muslim, Sikh, Scientologist, Pastafarian etc. schools.

Faith schools contribute to community segregation – including ethnic segregation. Research in 2017 found that primary faith schools are more ethnically segregated than schools of no faith. The Sutton Trust found in 2024 that faith schools are among the most socially selective in England. And research in 2023 revealed faith schools admit fewer pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Department for Education guidance on 'promoting fundamental British values' calls it "unacceptable" for schools to "promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background". Yet faith schools do exactly that. The Government's own data shows that faith schools are directly responsible for creating a ghettoised education system, where Britain's Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim schools are mono-cultural zones that do nothing to foster greater social cohesion. Schools from various religious traditions exclude and isolate pupils whose parents don't share their religion, encouraging children to see each other's differences rather than what they have in common.

Faith schools also have the means to deny children the right to a thorough education on relationships and sex. RSE is now mandatory in all English schools, but the Government permits faith schools to "teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith", excluding vital information about LGBT issues or contraceptives. In addition, parents will still be able to opt their children out of RSE classes. This will leave children from conservative religious backgrounds without the impartial, appropriate education they need in this area.

It's not true to say that 21st century UK is a "Christian country."

The 2021 census found Christians are not longer the majority in England in Wales.

What's more, many countries with much higher Christian populations (like the USA) don't have state funded faith schools.

Opting children out and excluding them is far from ideal, as well as being both actively and passively discouraged by many faith schools. It's far better to ensure all aspects of the school day are inclusive of all pupils.

The UK is the only Western democracy to legally impose worship in publicly funded schools. The law in England and Wales provides that children at all maintained schools "shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship". Northern Ireland and Scotland have similar laws. Even in schools with no religious designation, the worship must be "wholly or mainly of a Christian character".

Parents have the right to withdraw children from collective worship, but many parents regard this as an unreasonable imposition on both themselves and their children. And even though parents have withdrawal rights, this is often far more difficult to exercise than you might imagine. In fact, it's sometimes even difficult for children to opt out of religious activities in non-religious schools! Within faith schools, the practical difficulties in exercising the right of withdrawal become insurmountable when worship encroaches into the classroom and religion permeates the whole school experience.

It should be noted that the children themselves do not have the right to opt out of collective worship before the age of 16.

Despite all of its talk of 'inclusivity' the Church of England appears increasingly keen to turn the schools it runs into places of worship. It fails to understand that there's more to inclusivity than not having a discriminatory admissions policy.

Church schools are increasingly under pressure from the CofE to assert a robust 'Christian ethos' – even in schools with a religiously diverse and largely religiously indifferent school community. Doing so is disrespectful to both pupils and parents. Many parents don't want somebody else's religion imposed on their children whilst at school.

In addition to Ofsted inspections, church schools have religiosity inspections by their local dioceses to ensure that they are "distinctively and recognisably Christian institutions". Pressure to receive a favourable diocesan inspection may well explain why we're now seeing some church schools increasing their religiosity by worshipping at the beginning and end of each day and before and after lunch; introducing prayer corners in classrooms; having regular visits from priests, and even employing them as 'school chaplains'.

This proselytism and evangelism in church schools undermines parental rights and children's religious freedoms. Senior staff in church schools are usually practising Christians (a job requirement for many headteachers) and many parents feel uncomfortable raising concerns about the way in which religion is being promoted in their child's school, fearing their perfectly reasonable stance will be regarded as 'anti-religious' by the religious authorities running the school – and indeed they are often given a frosty and defensive response.

And as previously mentioned, many faith schools including CofE schools actively discriminate against those who are not of the faith. They also admit fewer pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The vast proportion of funding for faith schools comes not from the religious body, but from the state. It comes from your taxes.

In the case of Voluntary Aided schools, all of their running costs and 90% of their building costs are funded by their state. The remaining 10% of building costs are supposedly paid for by the religious body. This is typically met by fundraising among the parents, or by further government grants.

All other types of faith school in England and Wales are funded 100% by the state.

Find out more about different types of schools in the UK.

Not at all. A growing number of groups and individuals are campaigning for the end to faith schools.

We believe the abolition of state-funded faith schools is not only an achievable goal, but an absolute must if the UK is to be a country where people of all backgrounds and all walks of life can coexist peacefully, and where individual liberty of belief and expression is respected.

Politicians often recognise the problems with faith schools, but feel we're stuck with them or consistently overestimate their popularity – our national campaign is designed to give a voice to the people of all faiths and none who oppose faith schools. Few other European nations fund faith schools, and where they do this is being questioned. For example, the governing party in Sweden has recently proposed ending the role of publicly-funded religious 'free' schools. If we take action together, change is possible!

No. Surveys consistently show the public oppose faith-based discrimination at schools funded by their taxes:

  • A 2016 Populus poll found 72% of voters from all religion and belief backgrounds oppose religious selection in schools, including 68% of Christians. Opposition to religious selection was overwhelming among minority religious groups including 82% of Muslims and Hindus.

  • Just 17% of respondents agree with the statement: "Publicly funded schools should be able to select pupils on the grounds of their religious beliefs".

  • 70% of teachers in England oppose religiously selective admissions, while just 18% support them. 75% of teachers working in non-faith schools oppose religiously selective admissions, 66% of teachers in C of E faith schools and a plurality (41%) of teachers in Catholic schools.

  • In 2012 ComRes found 83% agreed that "faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions", including a majority who strongly agreed.

Figures on which schools apply faith-based discrimination are not simple to obtain, because the government does not publish this information (although it does publish information on which schools practise academic selection).

Some estimate 16% of mainstream state school places are subject to religious selection, which is a shocking 1.2 million places in total. This is greater than the number of places at private, single-sex and grammar schools, or places that select by skill or aptitude, combined.

It is thought that most voluntary aided faith schools practise faith-based discrimination. The vast majority of these schools are Catholic.

Despite often rejecting the 'faith schools' label and claiming to be 'schools for everyone', Church of England schools often do discriminate in their admissions. A quarter of Church of England state secondary schools prioritise children from different faiths over children from non-religious families. Only 1 in 8 of dioceses surveyed advise their schools not to engage in faith-based selection. In contrast, 1 in 4 advise them to reserve some places on faith grounds.

In 2021 we found many CofE faith schools employ language which potentially misleads, or downplays the discriminatory admissions policies which occurs in schools

40% of all state-funded faith secondary schools in England discriminate against non-religious families specifically, by giving priority to families who are of any religion over the non-religious. 60% of Catholic state secondary schools discriminate against the nonreligious specifically - significantly more than any other kind of school.

In 2018, data from the Catholic Education Service revealed 14 Catholic secondary schools in England have no children from nonreligious families attending at all. All were in London, with high oversubscription.

Faith-based selection at schools puts less well-off families at a disadvantage.

2016 research by the London School of Economics suggests increasing the number of faith schools could increase social segregation and lower social mobility.

Disadvantaged pupils are under-represented at faith schools, while those with high prior attainment are over-represented. Parents from more affluent backgrounds are more than 80% more likely than average to fake religiosity in order to get into good selective faith schools.

The percentage of faith school pupils eligible for free school meals (a proxy for disadvantage) is below both the national average and the figure for non-faith schools. In 2013, The Fair Admissions Campaign found that Church of England comprehensives whose admissions criteria allow full selection of faith admit 35% fewer children eligible for free school meals.

More recent research by the Sutton Trust published in 2024 concluded that faith schools are among the most socially selective schools in England, with comparatively low numbers of pupils elligible for free school meals.

Finally, both Catholic and CofE schools admit fewer pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) than nonreligious schools.

Yes – depending on the type of school and employment, some faith schools can apply religious discrimination in the hiring, payment and promotion of staff.

Despite discrimination of grounds of religion and belief being unlawful, Equality Act exceptions allow schools with a religious character to require their teaching staff to adhere to a particular religion.

Voluntary controlled religious schools (often Church of England schools) can apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting one fifth of teaching staff, including the Head Teacher.

In voluntary aided religious schools (often Roman Catholic, but also sometimes Church of England and minority faiths), the governing body employs the staff and may theoretically apply a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting all teachers. In addition, all teachers can be disciplined or dismissed for conduct which is 'incompatible with the precepts of the school's religion.

The situation in academies and free schools with a religious character will depend on the school's funding agreement, but generally these will also have the ability to place religious requirements on teaching positions.

We consider the degree of discrimination legally permitted on the grounds of religion and belief against teachers and other school staff is unreasonable and unacceptable.

If some faith schools can maintain a religious ethos with a 20% limit on reserved positions, there can be no justification for the provisions in the Schools Standards and Framework Act which allow schools to use a religious test in appointing, remunerating and promoting all teachers.

However, we don't think any suitably qualified teachers should be blocked from teaching positions in publicly-funded schools on the basis of their beliefs or religious activities.

In England and Wales the relevant statute is the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Sections 58 and 60, as amended; in Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.

Find out more about the rights of employees at different types of schools across the UK.

Yes. Statutory school transport arrangements give preferential treatment to those attending the nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion and belief.

By law, local education authorities must provide free transport to a child's nearest school if that school is beyond a walking distance of two or three miles depending on the age of the child. Local authorities provide free transport to pupils from low-income families attending faith schools up to 15 miles from their home; meanwhile, those with no religious preference are given free transport only up to 6 miles.

In addition, many councils also provide school transport on a discretionary basis to children attending schools on the grounds of religion and belief. This almost exclusively applies to children attending faith schools.

Incredibly, pupils can miss out on subsidised transport to a particular faith school if they don't come from the same religious background as the faith of the school. We have dealt with cases of parents who have to pay the full amount for transport because their children aren't Catholic, while pupils from Catholic backgrounds have their bus travel to the same school subsidised.

We are against this unfair and discriminatory religious privilege and campaign for a fairer system. Our arguments are based on principle rather than cost, but the cost implications are significant.

We understand that some parents wish to send their children to a school with a particular 'faith ethos', but we regard the associated additional transport costs as a parental responsibility, not the responsibility of the state.

There is no legal right to a place in a school without a religious ethos. As a result, many parents are allocated faith schools against their wishes.

However, if you don't get the school you wanted, you can appeal against the decision.

In England, the way the appeals process works means your appeal is not against the school you've been allocated, but against the decision not to admit your child to your preferred school. You'll need to explain why this school would be the best place for your child. However, in cases where pupils are allocated faith schools, it's hard to do this without pointing out why the alternative school would be unsuitable.

If you do want to challenge the decision to allocate your child a place at a faith school, there is a human rights argument available to you. Article 2 of the First Protocol of the human Rights Act (Right to education) provides that the State must respect the right of parents' religious and philosophical convictions in respect of education and teaching. However, this only requires "respect for" not "compliance with" so may not necessarily be enough to successfully challenge a faith school allocation.

However, we are keen to establish an entitlement to a state education in a secular school, so if you do wish to explore the option of a legal challenge, please do get in touch.

No. Parents have a right to express a preference for the school they want their child to attend but do not have a right for their child to attend that particular school. Although UK governments have decided to offer a mixed economy of faith and secular schools, they are under no obligation to fund religious schools of any kind. There is therefore no right to access a state-funded faith school.

If your school is being academised (or if already an academy is being rebrokered), and you have concerns about it being taken over by a religious group, some options you might want to consider are:

  • Speak to the governing body. We always recommend good communications with the school. It is usually better to assume that the schools is acting in good faith. That schools are under a lot of pressure to academise is likely to be their main motivating factor.

  • Look out for a consultation and ask as many questions as possible. Decide on your aims, what you can hope for and what you might reasonably achieve.

  • Speak to local parents. It can sometimes feel like the school is trying to hide or downplay the involvement of a faith group in the proposed MAT. So don't assume that everyone who may be concerned is aware of this, or that someone sharing the faith of the proposed Trust won't also be concerned.

  • Contact your local paper and write to your MP and local education authority about your concerns.

  • Write to your local regional schools commissioner asking them to oppose the setting up of the trust or to impose stricter requirements to protect the community school ethos.

  • Get in touch with us and let us know any information that we can use to raise concerns/add to our research. Joining the National Secular Society will increase our resources to advocate for a fair secular and inclusive education system.

Please get in touch with us and let us know – we can help in challenging proposals for new faith schools.

Many CofE faith schools have traditionally been 'light touch' but are under pressure to promote a more rigorous religious ethos, often against the wishes of staff, parents and governors. Pressure can come through SIAMS inspections or academisation. If you would like to discuss any of these issues, please get in touch.

In Britain, state-funded schools, including free schools and academies, are not permitted to teach creationism as an evidence-based scientific theory. Outside of science lessons, it is permissible for schools to cover creationism as part of religious education lessons or in assemblies as part of collective worship. Unless religion is taught in an objective and critical manner, it's hard to see how the teaching of creationism in this way does not undermine the teaching of established scientific theory. We are therefore concerned that, particularly in religious schools, creationist views are still being promoted in the classroom.

Since 2015, the primary national curriculum in English schools has included a module on evolution as part of the year six programme of study (ages 10-11). Evolution had previously only been taught from year ten (ages 14-15) onwards.

There are no specific prohibitions on teaching creationism in schools in Northern Ireland.

We encourage you to get in touch with us if creationism is being taught as fact at your child's school.

Integrated schools are a type of school in Northern Ireland which aims to tackle the serious problems of segregation and sectarianism by actively educating pupils from Protestant, Catholic and other backgrounds together.

Currently over 90% of pupils in Northern Ireland attend schools which are effectively segregated along religious lines, despite the existence of widespread support for integrated education. In 2021, 83% of nonreligious people, 69% of Protestants, and 57% of Catholics said they would prefer to send their children to a school of mixed religions. But integrated schools only make up 6% of schools, and less than 8% of children attend them. In 2021/22, 16% of first preference applications to post-primary integrated schools did not result in admission to that particular school.

While integrated schools officially have a Christian ethos, their nondenominational status and their proactive approach to diversity makes them an important step towards a fully inclusive education system in NI and sending segregation and sectarianism.

Find out more about the characteristics of different types of schools in the UK.

We don't oppose independent faith schools in principle. However, all schools, including independent schools with a religious ethos, should be bound by law to make the education and welfare of children their first priority.

The National Secular Society does not oppose faith schools which are privately funded, rather than funded by the state, because this is in keeping with the secularist principle of separation of religion and state.

However, we are concerned that many registered independent faith schools fail to provide an adequate education because they prioritise religious inculcation above other concerns.

Ofsted's 2022 annual report revealed that registered independent faith schools "have worse inspection outcomes than non-faith independent schools". This is partly due to some schools limiting the curriculum in areas they "consider to conflict directly with their religion" and serving communities "that want children's education to prepare them only for life within that community".

We campaign to end unregistered independent 'schools' which pose the greatest threat to children's rights and safety. Find out more.