UK primary school
Reading Time: 11 minutes By TR001 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 11 minutes

I have recently been talking about faith schools here at ATP, as concerns the UK and Ireland. Ireland recently announced that they are getting rid of admissions policies that dictate access to schools based on the religious denomination of the children applying.

There is this general opinion in the UK that faith schools are better either in terms of attainment or behaviour or both, than non-denominational schools. Let’s look more closely at this. Bearing in mind, I have had over a decade of experience in both faith and non-faith education here.

I have often argued about (state-funded) faith schools and whether their above-average exam results are used in repeated examples of the correlation fallacy.

This notion that attainment and behaviour are better in faith schools really is commonly claimed, even by non-religious people.

The reality (and having worked in some, I should know) is that the sorts of parents who want their children to do well have high aspirations. Let’s call them HAPs (High Aspiration Parents – my acronym). HAPs will do things for their children to further their education, both in and out of school. HAPs will support their children by teaching them to read early, by setting high standards and expectations for their children and so on. I am a governor at a non-denomination state school and a teacher in another non-denominational state school and this happens equally as much across the socio-demographic lines as well as faith lines. Good schools attract HAPs because they aspire to do more to get their children the best education. We did this, as parents. We mortgaged up to the hilt to move into the area where our twins could access an “outstanding”-rated school. We paid a premium on our house in the area. We could just about afford to. Many others couldn’t.

We are HAPs. We read to our kids every night, take them to after-school clubs, speak to them in complex language (I could bore you on the research here, and its relationship to class divide), give them as many opportunities as we can, help them in their projects, turn up to parents meetings. 100% of parents turn up to parents evenings and they invariably ask, “What can I do to help improve my child at X?”. The boys’ school will arguably benefit in terms of the attainment of our twins on account of what we do. (Incidentally, ?i love our boys’ school – this is not an attack on them).

Down the road, at a school that is “requires improvement”, in a much more challenging neighbourhood, where the teachers are really good, but the children they deal with are hugely challenging, only 50% of the parents turn up to parents evenings. These are Low Aspiration Parents (LAPs) – they will send their children to the local school because they have no real desire to aspire to send them to the best school, or are financially hamstrung and cannot possibly move house as mentioned. These LAPs often have educational deficits of their own, social and emotional needs above and beyond the average and the HAPs. I recently ran a staff meeting on the connection between low socio-economic status (Low SES) and life successes, and what we could do to try to turn that around. The data here is massive.

This plays out in so many ways – genetic and environmental – such that schools end up polarising. Schools that are supposedly outstanding based on attainment often coast with less than outstanding practice, on account of the parents doing a lot of the legwork in terms of general education, and the results follow. I could give you reams more details about this, and about the demographic differences between the schools I have mentioned (where one school has something like 3 Pupil Premium children – kids on free school meals as an indicator of poverty – and the other, comparable in size, has 150; one school has 40% naval (officer) families and the disposable income that comes with that, the other not; and so on).

Results and schools should be judged on far more contextual data, but we need to be able to test 4/5 year-olds on entrance, and this is controversial. Without doing that, though, we cannot accurately judge the value added by the school, rather than the end outcomes.

OFSTED, the infamous inspection agency, has just announced that they are going to take the foot off judging schools so heavily on outcomes, as these can be skewed so vastly. This is pretty huge news in education circles.

It’s interesting, then, that this can be seen purely in non-denominational and secular contexts. And this applies directly to the subject of faith schools.

Faith schools have a reputation for better discipline and results. This is a virtuous circle. A school that is deemed better will invariably get more HAPs applying for it. The HAP children have a higher chance of achieving (and there is the genetic component here too) and they have parents who are more likely to try their hardest to get their children into the ‘best school’. Thus faith schools often have a skewed admission since they are being selected by more conscientious parents with higher expectations for their children.

Then Christians, diocesan education boards, religious marketing institutions and other believers get hold of the higher results and laud faith schools for producing better-educated children when it is actually the parental contributions that cause this.

Here is a Guardian article (from a few years back) that shows this to be the case:

England’s faith state schools are failing to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area, analysis by the Guardian of the latest government figures shows.

The Roman Catholic church, which has repeatedly insisted its schools are inclusive, comes out particularly badly in the examination of data published by the Department for Education (DfE) last month and in December. Three-quarters of Catholic primary and secondary schools have a more affluent mix of pupils than their local area.

The figures also reveal that most Church of England (CofE) primary schools have an intake that is untypically affluent and more middle-class than a year ago. The findings will fuel claims that faith schools have been picking pupils from well-off families by selecting on the basis of religion.

Which fits in entirely with my socio-economic demographic argument.

The Guardian analysed the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals – a key indicator of poverty – in each of England’s 19,534 state, non-selective primary and secondary schools. All schools designated for children with special needs were taken out.

I will add to this, with first-hand knowledge, that “outstanding” schools routinely explicitly or implicitly select out children with special educational needs. What happens is schools in difficult areas (who can, as a result, appear to be underperforming) struggle sometimes to fill their places, and outstanding schools are oversubscribed, and so challenging children who get moved from school to school rarely find a place, or are refused a place, in “outstanding” or “good” schools, and “requires improvement” schools (to use OFSTED terminology) get a reputation for dealing well with difficult children. Again, this polarises schools on behaviour and attainment as the snowball effect gathers.

The schools have been grouped according to whether they are affiliated to the CofE, the Catholic church or have no religious character. The number of state-funded Muslim and Jewish schools is too small to form a meaningful group – however, the 11 state-funded Muslim schools in England are collectively more reflective of their community, with 67% of primaries and 60% of secondaries having more than the local authority average of free school meal pupils. The 36 Jewish state schools on average have less representation of pupils on free school meals than their local area. There are many Christian schools connected to other denominations, but the data does not specify which denomination.

The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in each CofE, Catholic or non-religious school was compared with the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in their local authority and among all the comparable schools in the same postcode area.

It is well-known that the average proportion of deprived pupils in faith schools is lower than it is for all schools in England. However, it has not until now been clear whether this is a facet of the areas they serve. Our analysis shows for the first time the extent to which faith and non-faith schools reflect – or fail to reflect – the proportion of poor pupils in their area.

The vast majority of Catholic primary and secondary schools fail to mirror the proportion of poor pupils living in their community, the data reveals. The Catholic church has fought successful battles to retain control of admissions to its schools.

Again, I have first-hand working knowledge of this. Faith schools often don’t have a geographically-defined catchment area, and they use restrictive admissions policies. This means that they don’t have to take in local pupils based on a sort of council-run admissions lottery of sorts. They have more control over who comes to their school.

Some 73% of Catholic primaries and 72% of Catholic secondaries have a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than the average for the local authority.

It is the same for CofE primary and secondary schools. Some 74% of these primaries and 65.5% of secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is average for the local authority.

In contrast, non-religious schools tend to reflect their neighbourhoods. Half (51%) of non-religious primaries and 45% of non-religious secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative for their local authority.

Indeed, as I mentioned.

Faith schools fared no better when examined at a more local level. We compared the proportion of poor pupils in each postcode with the proportion of poor pupils in faith schools and non-faith schools studying in that postcode. The data shows 76% of Catholic primaries and 65% of Catholic secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative of their postcode. This is the case for 63.5% of CofE primaries and 40% of CofE secondaries.

Non-religious primaries and secondaries are far more likely to mirror the proportion of poor pupils in their postcode – just 47% of non-faith primaries and 29% of non-faith secondaries take a smaller proportion of free school meals than is representative for their postcode.

Anna Vignoles, a professor of the economics of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said the Guardian’s findings could be explained by the fact that faith schools draw their pupils from their faith communities, which are not necessarily located in the same postcode or area as their school.

A study by Dr Rebecca Allen and Professor Anne West of the Institute of Education and the London School of Economics, published in 2011, showed that middle class parents are more likely to apply to faith schools – and that the admissions procedures there are easier for them to navigate.

Our data also shows that CofE primary schools are increasingly serving the better-heeled in their communities.

Whereas this year 74% of the church’s primaries have a smaller proportion of the poorest pupils than their local authority, the year before 72% did.

At a more local level, the same is the case. This year, 63.5% of the church’s primaries have a smaller proportion of the poorest pupils than their postcode, compared to 60% last year.

Maeve McCormack, policy manager at the Catholic Education Service, said Catholic schools appeared not to reflect their communities in our data because their catchment areas were geographically wider than the postcode or local authority where the schools were situated.

She said separate figures from the DfE showed 18.6% of pupils at Catholic primary schools live in the 10% most deprived areas of England, compared with only 14.3% of primary school pupils nationally. Some 17% of pupils at Catholic schools lived in the 10% most deprived areas compared to 12% of pupils nationally.

Quite. But the problem is not that they don’t reflect the geographical area per se, but what this in turn entails. They are not reflecting the cross-section of attainment – genes, biology and environment – of that area. Therefore, the outcome attainment that the school obtains is skewed and not representative, and not comparable to another, less selective school.

The DfE calculates the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals based on how many families apply for this benefit. McCormack said that because there was a “cultural stigma” attached to claiming free school meals, fewer than the expected number of pupils were reported to be on the benefit.

That sounds like a terrible excuse. Don’t buy that at all. Free school meals, in my experience, are not seen in this way (my partner is a business manager at a faith school who deals precisely with this!). They are well embedded and this would not nearly account for the statistical difference.

A spokesman for the CofE said local authorities controlled the admissions of more than half its schools. The church rejected the idea that those schools that controlled their own admissions were failing to mirror their local communities.

“The current government agenda to narrow the differential attainment between groups was the priority of the founders of church school education 200 years ago, when providing a basic education for the poor was not seen as a state responsibility,” the spokesman said.

“This remains the driver for all that we continue to do today. That is why the church is the largest sponsor of academies, mostly in deprived areas where the schools had a history of under-performance.

“These academies have opened up new opportunities and new life chances for nearly 45,000 young people, all living in disadvantaged areas – a clear example of the outworking of the church’s mission in education.”

Richy Thompson from the British Humanist Association said the data gave “further cause for concern that allowing religious discrimination within our state system exacerbates socioeconomic inequality as well as being religiously and ethnically divisive”.

He said: “We urge the government to end faith-based selection in all state-funded schools.”

Our analysis found some particularly egregious examples of schools – both Catholic and CofE – that take far fewer numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative of their area.

In St John’s Church of England primary in Croydon, south London, just 7% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 29% across the postcode and 24% across the local authority.

Meanwhile, at St James’s Catholic primary school in Richmond, south-west London, only 1% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 10% across the postcode and local authority.

There is a little more below on the correlation fallacy that is the “better results” claim. When you adjust for all other things, the gap disappears.

End result? There are other things at play when it comes to the difference between faith schools and non-faith schools when it comes to attainment and behaviour.

Faith School Myths

Here are some myths pertaining to faith schools:

  1. “Faith schools give parents greater choice” – The existence of faith schools actually restricts choice for many parents, particularly if they have no religion. Oversubscribed schools can and do use restrictive admissions criteria to discriminate. Schools and academies with a religious designation are exempt from equality law when it comes to admissions and employment regulation. They can and do sack people for being gay, atheist or whatnot. Oh, could I tell you things about this…
  2. “Faith schools achieve better results” – There is little or no evidence to support this. In 2017, a 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. 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.
  3. “Faith schools are better at teaching children morals” – I would love to see the data on this. All schools have a statutory responsibility to do this, and there has recently been more inclusive guidance on this that I previously wrote about. This is anecdotal and most likely to coincide with the input/socio-demographic issues detailed above.

  4. “Faith schools are necessary to protect parents’ religious freedom” – A more inclusive and understanding comprehensive system fosters a less “us and them” environment. Non-denominational schools are far more accepting of others, since everyone is an “other” of some type, than faith schools. Diversity is fostered in these more comprehensive environments. A secular education system is perfectly consistent with protecting individuals’ religious freedom.

  5. “Faith schools don’t do any harm – why not just let them be?” – I could document (and have before) heaps of harm faith schools do. I have seen and lived it. Go Google it. Start with Humanists UK and the National Secular Society.
  6. “We are a Christian country, so therefore it is only right that we have Christian schools that teach our Christian values” – Not any more, according to data and surveys. And if you are talking about historically, why are we ignoring our pagan past?

  7. “Children can just opt out of religious activities at faith schools” – Not ideal. This just otherises children. That we still technically have statutory daily Christian collective worship in this day and age is ridiculous, even if many schools ignore the Christian part (it is law, though). Americans are often surprised by this with their secular laws but religious cultural character, and our UK religiously entwined laws and secular character.

  8. “Church schools are for everyone” – No, as above. They are allowed restrictive admissions policies and opt out of human rights legislation. People lie to pretend to be religious to get their kids in, as written about in “New research finds pretending to be religious is most common form of school admissions cheating“.

  9. “Faith schools help to relieve the burden on the state by funding our children’s education” – This is a whopper that people up and down the country simply don’t know about. Not only can such schools discriminate against admissions and their staff, but they are almost entirely funded by the taxpayer. A Voluntary Aided faith school has to raise 10% of new building work only. And, hilariously (or not), they do this most commonly by charging the parents of each child something like £10-30 per term. The dioceses basically contribute the square root of naff all to funding faith schools. It is the taxpayer who funds the discrimination. You should know this and complain about it.

  10. “We’re stuck with them” – No we’re not. Campaign and vote. Try the National Secular Society’s campaign or Humanists UK.


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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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