Faith primary schools admit fewer SEND children, research finds
Posted: Mon, 2nd Oct 2023
Study: CofE and Catholic primaries less likely than community schools to admit children with special educational needs and disabilities
The National Secular Society has said faith schools are "failing to serve our diverse communities" after new research found Christian primary schools are less likely to admit children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
According to research published yesterday by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), faith-based primary schools admit fewer children with SEND than local authority community primaries.
Dr Tammy Campbell, who authored the research, concluded that many Church of England (CofE) and Catholic primary schools "serve as hubs of relative advantage, seeming disproportionately to serve children from more affluent families and children less likely to have SEND".
The paper builds on previous research that suggests faith schools tend to educate proportionately fewer children from low-income families.
About 28% of children in England's state-funded primary schools attend faith schools, predominantly CofE and Catholic.
CofE and Catholic schools have exemptions from equality law which allow them to prioritise children based on the religiosity of their family in their admissions criteria - a practice widely criticised by children's rights advocates, including the NSS and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Faith schools "under-serving children with disabilities"
The research analysed Reception year admissions to mainstream state schools from 2010-2020 in England. It found that in 2020, on average:
- Catholic schools admitted to reception 24% fewer children with SEND recorded in pre-school than local authority community schools.
- CofE schools that administer their own admissions (academies and schools known as 'voluntary aided' or VA) admitted 15% fewer children with SEND recorded in pre-school. For voluntary controlled (VC) CofE schools, whose admissions are managed by the local authority, this figure was 8%.
Children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), which is a higher level SEND funded by local authorities, were also less likely to be admitted to faith schools. In 2020, on average:
- Catholic schools admitted 15% fewer children with an EHCP than local authority community schools.
- VA CofE schools and CofE academies admitted 11% fewer children with an EHCP than local authority community schools. At VC CofE schools, this was 6%.
The research points out that faith schools have consistently been "positioned and protected" by successive recent governments as a public 'good', because they supposedly provide parents with more choices and attain good academic results.
Last month Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said he would be "even more supportive of faith schools" than the current government.
But faith schools are "under-serving children with disabilities", the paper said.
It said the findings emphasise "the need to question properly the function of faith schools in contemporary England".
NSS research has additionally found faith schools restrict choice for many families.
Concluding, the research says the findings demand "substantial, transparent policy consideration and, potentially, reform".
Dr Campbell said: "What part do 'faith' establishments play within the current schools system?
"Whose interests are they more likely to serve? And what does the seeming overconcentration of 'advantaged' children within 'faith' schools tell us about the workings of a marketised system premised upon 'choice and diversity'?"
NSS: "Faith schools are failing to serve our diverse communities"
NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "It's alarming to see faith schools failing to adequately admit pupils with special educational needs.
"It's long been known that religious selection acts as a form of socio-economic segregation. The evidence suggests it is also impeding opportunities and access for children and families with the greatest needs.
"It's yet another reason why the equality law opt-outs that allow faith school to select of the basis of faith should be rescinded.
"And it's more evidence that faith schools are failing to serve our diverse communities in the 21st century. Religious agendas must no longer be prioritised above the education and welfare of our most vulnerable children."
- 'Serving their communities? The under-admission of children with disabilities and 'special educational needs' to 'faith' primary schools in England' by Dr Tammy Campbell is published in Oxford Review of Education.
- The analysis controlled for other school-level factors, and the area in which the school is based.
- Dr Campbell is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at LSE.
- The study did not examine faith schools of other denominations as their numbers were too small for reporting.
Tell Labour to think again on faith schools
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer recently stated he "wouldn't tinker" with how faith schools are run, and that Labour would be "even more supportive of faith schools" than the current government.
Join us in calling on Labour to think again on faith schools. Write to your Labour MP or representative today.