Headteacher Ian Bauckham attacks some common myths about faith schools and argues that their abolition would seriously reduce parental choice as well as being detrimental to the government’s commitment to raising standards.

The white paper predecessor to the new Education and Inspections Bill was launched by the prime minister as a measure that focused on giving parents a stronger say in the way the education system is run. Of course, such a sentiment is nothing new. Writing about a contemporary debate over schools of religious character exactly a century ago, the writer Hilaire Belloc is recorded as saying:

‘The bulk of the English people and the overwhelming majority of the parents whose children are at the elementary schools hold the simple principle that the parents should determine in what religious atmosphere his child is to be brought up.’

Recommended resource: Take a look at our new book Leading a Faith School by John Viner – full of topical debate, practical advice and guidance, and a comprehensive history of faith schools

Vigorous debate

In our own time, the role and position of state-funded faith schools still provokes vigorous debate and it is particularly pertinent to engage in this debate in the light of current proposed education legislation. There are a number of areas which ought to be explored in this discussion. The first is what a ‘faith school’ actually is, and whether what it sets out to do is possible or justifiable in our time. Another is what position such schools have or ought to have in our universal education system and to what extent such schools have a deleterious effect on the rest of the system. This question will clearly touch on the contentious issue of admissions, an area of particular interest in the light of the current education bill, which seeks to extend the freedoms enjoyed by the voluntary aided sector more widely.

The case against state-funded schools of religious character is easy to make and has been regularly articulated by opponents in the media in recent months. It goes like this: faith schools are for children of practising religious families, who by definition are more likely to be educationally aspirational for their children. Voluntary aided schools are their own admissions authorities and can set their own admissions criteria. Thus they covertly select predominantly middle class children from aspirational families, who are more likely to be well behaved and well disposed to education. This means that other local comprehensive schools are left with a smaller proportion of such children, to their disadvantage, and public religious hypocrisy amongst the middle classes hoping to gain access for their children to faith schools is encouraged.

Faith schools are also ethnically divisive, it is claimed, because members of any given religious group tend to be from the same ethnic group. Moreover, runs the argument, it is intolerable that in our secular society public money be used to run schools that exist to help propagate private religious belief. Some critics go further and claim that faith schools are potential breeding grounds for bigotry, which risk fuelling communal tensions in our fragile multicultural society.

This all seems clear and logical – an open and shut case against faith schools. But is it quite so simple? Let us first take the assumption that faith schools attract predominantly children from privileged backgrounds. Of course, we can always find examples of this happening, particularly in London, from where much of the rhetoric against faith schools emanates.

The national figures are not quite so clear-cut. In England there are just under 500 voluntary aided secondary schools, most attached to the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, and about 2,900 non-selective secondary schools. About a quarter of all secondary schools serve a population with more than 21% on free school meals. Interestingly, the proportion of schools classed as ‘disadvantaged’ using this measure is more or less identical amongst voluntary aided schools and all other schools.

Since the 2001 Dearing report that challenged the Church of England to create 100 new secondary church schools, 44 have been either opened or firmly agreed, of which two thirds are in areas of social deprivation or long-term educational failure. Many Catholic schools, particularly in the Midlands and the north of England, have no admissions criteria other than a requirement that the child is baptised. There are many Catholic schools, including in that erstwhile stronghold of Catholicism Liverpool, where a small minority of students and families are actually practising church-goers.

Comprehensive admissions

Faith schools abide by the admissions code of practice and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are comprehensive in their intake, including in areas of the country where eleven plus selection dominates the rest of the education system. So we can refute categorically the accusation that, nationwide, faith schools are intended for and attract more privileged children than non-faith schools.

What about the argument that faith schools are religiously and ethnically divisive in a damaging way in our inclusive and multi-cultural society? Faith schools tend to draw from much wider catchments than other comprehensive schools, which are often tied to a relatively restricted geographical area. While a comprehensive situated in an affluent leafy suburb is likely to have only a small proportion of underprivileged children, a church school in the same location is much more likely to have children from a distant estate and from a much less privileged background.

This phenomenon is evident in many Catholic schools in our major cities, where a much greater diversity of ethnic groupings drawn from a wide area can be found, including many refugees and recent immigrants from Catholic backgrounds, than in non-religious comprehensives. The most prestigious of the latter can often be accessed only by those families able to afford high house prices in an immediate catchment area. There is actually a far greater proportion of black African and Caribbean children in Anglican schools nationally than in non-faith schools.

Eye-catching headlines

We must take a few moments to reflect on the relatively recent coinage ‘faith schools’, which I have been using as a convenient abbreviation for ‘schools of religious character’. A poll in The Guardian last year posed the question: Are you in favour of or opposed to faith schools? It found that nearly two thirds of respondents said they were against them, which made an eye-catching headline offering succour no doubt to the metropolitan opponents of faith schools.

What did the respondents think they were voting against, I wonder? They were perhaps in part voting against a scarcely articulated idea of faith schools as places where children are indoctrinated with fundamentalist and irrational religious beliefs at the taxpayers’ expense and then released on an unsuspecting world to become at best religious nutters, and at worst dangerous extremists.

Nothing could be further from the reality of what state-funded voluntary aided religious schools do. Incidentally, there is a clear tension between the accusation that faith schools propagate religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and on the other that they are covertly intended for the middle classes and encourage public hypocrisy. As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said in a recent speech, if the second accusation were true, ‘they might breed snobs but they would be unlikely to breed bigots’ .

Voluntary aided schools, be they Anglican, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh, are all obliged to follow the National Curriculum, are all inspected and publicly accountable, and have all recently formally agreed to do what the vast majority have been doing for many years – namely teach children about religions other than their own. The problem is perhaps that the term ‘faith schools’ has also been applied in the media to privately funded schools run by various fundamentalist or extreme Christian or Muslim groups and has been confused in the public mind with the religious voluntary aided sector.

Facts and figures

So having refuted the easier charges made against faith schools, namely that they are covertly selective, ethnically and socially divisive, and breeding grounds for bigotry and fanaticism, we must turn to perhaps more important philosophical questions. Some interesting figures have recently been published on the relative achievements of disadvantaged children in faith and non-faith schools. The difference is relatively small but, I would argue, significant. In faith schools in 2004, 34% of these children achieved five higher grade GCSEs, whereas of their counterparts in non-faith schools only 29% achieved the GCSE benchmark.

What is it then that makes faith schools distinctive and apparently successful? How are the values of a faith school qualitatively different from those of other schools? The answer must lie in something more than a claim to care for each student as an individual, to be committed to the realisation of potential, and so on, because every non-faith school would espouse this kind of value as well.

One can answer the question only tentatively I think. Perhaps in religious schools a sense of shared identity through faith plays a roll in nurturing the moral and personal growth of children. Perhaps a sense in which our values and beliefs are not in any way random choices or rules of the school, but rather derived from and in a living relationship with something much greater than the individual school – namely the entire church or faith community across the world and through history – helps achieve the same. We all know that children with confidence in themselves and their backgrounds are better disposed to learning than those who are in any sense uprooted or unsure of their position in the world.

Vocation is another important contribution: there are in faith schools many teachers and other staff who are motivated in their work by a real sense of religious calling to do the work they do. Perhaps the way in which they work with children is somehow subtly distinctive. One could easily offend the very many committed and dedicated staff in non-faith schools with such a claim, but it is nevertheless an important point, I think. The rhythm of public worship, celebration of religious festivals and prayer, which is present more strongly in the faith school, must also play a role in creating a climate that is conducive to learning. All of this contributes to what we often refer to as our distinctive ethos.

Use of public money

So finally we turn to the charge that asks whether it is right that in our society public money is used to propagate private religious beliefs. Firstly, the same public money would be required to educate the children were they not in faith schools – the voluntary aided sector is funded on the same basis as other state schools, and in one way actually at a lower level – voluntary aided schools must contribute 10% to all capital works from their own resources.

Faith schools do not set out to proselytise. They exist to enable children and young people to be educated in a climate of commitment, both learning about and actually living and experiencing life in a faith community. They enable parents to make the free choice that Hilaire Belloc referred to, namely to exercise their fundamental human right as families to nurture their children in their faith. It is hardly fair then to levy a raft of charges against their schools when it transpires that children so nurtured actually outperform those whose parents have made the equally free choice not to opt for a faith-based education for them.

Surely the response when faced with such a result must be either to make available more faith schools so that more parents have this choice available to them, or to focus on further improving secular schools so that parents who do not want a religious school for their children are able to choose a non-faith school with greater confidence than many are able to do currently? Or perhaps both?

There is no reason whatsoever why parents should not be able to choose between a good faith school and an equally effective secular school for their child. The least rational course of action would be to seek to abolish faith schools.

We have demonstrated that faith schools do not in fact have an overwhelmingly privileged student population which would magically raise attainment in the non-faith schools these children would then attend. All that would happen is that the very precious and very successful heritage of faith-based education, which serves so many, including some of the least privileged of our children, so well, would be lost. State-funded faith-based education enriches our society, acting in many ways as the biblical leaven to ensure that the secular materialistic values on which modern society is based do not go completely unchallenged.

Two sides of the coin

Pupils at faith-based primary schools are a year ahead of children at other schools, research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found. In a 2002 study by the National Foundation for Education Research, the value that certain schools add to pupils’ learning between the ages of 11 and 16 was examined. It concluded that faith secondary schools have a negligible effect.

However, Professor Sig Prais from the institute said that the study failed to appreciate how far ahead many children who attended faith schools were by the time they entered secondary school, aged 11. An analysis of Key Stage 2 maths scores from primaries in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, where results are similar to the national average, found pupils in religious schools far outperform other children.

On average, using 2003 results, children at the borough’s seven faith primaries scored 67.6 out of 100, compared with 53.9 at other schools. It meant that faith school pupils had a grasp of maths equivalent to a child aged 12.6, compared with 11.6 elsewhere. The gap was biggest among children in the bottom 10% at both types of school. Even the worst performers at faith schools had a ‘maths age’ of 10.9, compared with 9.2 at other primaries.

The British Humanist Association argues for a halt to the expansion of faith schools and the reforming of those that exist so as to make them inclusive and accommodating to pupils and parents of all religions. It claims that there is evidence that church schools in the state sector are socially selective, taking less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of the children of ‘ambitious and choosy parents’. This covert selection, it says, goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success.

The society highlights the following findings:

  • In the average community secondary (primary) school, 15.4% (20.1%) of children are eligible for free school meals; in the average Church of England school it is only 11.6% (11.3%) (DfES figures for England, 2005).
  • In 2005, only 14% of pupils in faith schools had special educational needs, as against 17% in community schools (DfES figures for England, 2005).