Faith Schools – Why Not?

The following article is based on BHA Briefing 2006/4 (PDF).  Here we summarise the main arguments against faith schools and challenge some common assumptions.

It is widely assumed that religious (or “faith-based” or “faith”) schools are a good thing. The Government green paper Schools Building on Success (2001) welcomed Church of England proposals for a hundred extra church secondary schools because “they have a good record of delivering a high quality of education”. Since then the Government has encouraged and funded more schools run by religious groups on the grounds of increasing parental choice and diversity of provision in education.

“Church schools get good results.”

 Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and Church and other faith schools are selective:  They usually take a less than representative sample of deprived children and more than their share of the children of ambitious and wealthier parents.  This covert selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success.  “Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds,” said a spokesperson for Ofsted in the  Times Educational Supplement, 16/2/01.

The tables below show that selection operates to the advantage of many faith schools.

Percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals in maintained school by type of school (DfES figures for England, 2005)


 Religious character   Maintained primary schools   Maintained secondary schools
Church of England 11.3 (12.2 in 2001) 11.6 (11.8 in 2001)
Roman Catholic 15.6 (17.2 in 2001) 14.6 (16.5 in 2001)
Methodist 15.2
Other Christian Faith 12.7 6.8
Jewish 3.1 5.9
Muslim 31.5 34.1
Sikh 9.3 10.8
Other 9.8 23.2
Non-religious schools 20.1 (20.2 in 2001) 15.4 (16.8 in 2001)

Percentage of children with special educational needs by type of school (DfES figures for England, 2005)


Religious character Maintained primary schools Maintained secondary schools
Religious schools 16.0 14.1
Non-religious schools 18.9 17.1

Dr Sandie Schagen, Principal Research Officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research told the Parliamentary Education and Skills Select Committee in 2003: “On the basis of our research, looking exclusively at achievement, there is not any evidence at all to suggest really that increasing the number of faith schools will improve the level of achievement­. Our finding is that basically, when you apply value-added analysis, that advantage all but disappears, which suggests that the difference is based on intake. Interestingly, you can hypothesise that if they do have better ethos and better behaviour and so on that would lead to better achievement, but we did not find any evidence that that is so.”

Welsh figures reveal a similar pattern. The Statistical Directorate of the National Assembly for Wales’Church School Secondary Education in Wales, Examination and Attendance Data, 2000, SDB21/2001,concluded: “Analysis of levels of examination performance in comparison with levels of free school meal entitlement shows that once the different levels of free school meal entitlement are taken into account, the differences in GCSE/GNVQ examination performance and absenteeism [between Church and other schools] were not statistically significant.”

If we want socially or academically selective education (with the disadvantaged “sink” schools that will inevitably accompany it), we should have an open and honest debate about it, not bring it in by stealth and in a way that benefits only religious minorities.

“Church schools serve the whole community – they don’t discriminate or proselytise.”

This may have been true of some Church schools up until recently.   But the Archbishops’ Council reportThe Way ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium (2001), “confirmed the crucial importance of the Church schools to the whole mission of the Church to children and young people, and indeed to the long-term well-being of the Church of England”. It recommended reserving places for Christians and that Church schools should become more “distinctively Christian”, with a mission to “Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith”.

When only 7.4% adults in England go to church on an average Sunday (Religious Trends2002-2003 ), such overtly Christian schools cannot serve the whole community.  Neither do they respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter of choosing their own religious and value commitments. Religious Education and worship in Church and other religious schools are not generally as broad-based and multi-faith as in community schools, and faith schools discriminate against everyone not of their faith – in their admissions and employment policies, their curricula, and their ethos and assumptions about their religion and the worldviews of others. Some faith schools will not even try to serve the whole community, and will divide children not just by religion but also ethnically – especially if Muslims, Sikhs, Seventh Day Adventists and other minority religions and denominations get more than the tiny handful of schools they have now.   Northern Ireland and Bradford are examples of what happens to communities where children are educated separately and grow up knowing little of each other.

“Faith schools increase parental choice.”

Choice is rarely feasible in small communities, and even in larger ones choice for one group is usually at the expense of another. Faith schools choose their pupils, rather than the other way round, and a proliferation of faith schools will decrease choice for the majority of parents, unless they are prepared to join, or pretend to join, a religion.

A report of the Education and Skills Select Committee in May 2003, based on evidence from numerous experts, stated: “In practice parents have found that the reality of school diversity and choice can act to limit rather than expand their options for their children’s education.”    And in 2005, the Select Committee found that: ” In oversubscribed schools, the satisfaction of one person’s choice necessarily denies that of another.” A plethora of different kinds of school – specialist, trust, faith-based (some of them specialist), and academies (some of them faith-based) – will not necessarily increase choice or raise standards.

6292, or 35.6%, primary schools have a religious character, and of these 4468 are C of E and a total of 6258 or 99% are Christian; 593, or 17.5%, secondary schools have a religious character, and of these 201 are C of E, and a total of 582 or 98%, are Christian (DfES figures, 2005). As Church school numbers increase, other religious groups demand their own publicly funded schools on grounds of equity.

Though religious leaders and organisations want more faith schools, poll after poll finds that parents and the general public just want good all-round neighbourhood schools.  A survey for Bella magazine by NOP in June 2000 found that 79% said separating children according to religious belief is as wrong as separating them according to colour or accent; 72% believed that children should never be excluded just because they’re of a different faith, or of no faith at all; 55% said single-faith schools create a divided society; 37% said the proper place to teach religion is in Sunday School; 8% of parents who had sent their child to a religious school admitted they attended church just so they could get them in. A 2005 ICM/Guardian survey found that 64% of people opposed government funding for faith schools, fearing their impact on social cohesion. In 2005 96% of New Statesman readers thought that Tony Blair should end his support for faith schools.

“Faith schools have a better ethos than community schools.”

Religious schools tend to have a religious ethos, and their teachers do often have an enviable confidence in their moral values and invaluable moral support from parents.  But teachers in community schools frequently have these too, and the values and successes of community schools are too often underestimated.

Moral education is too important to be left solely to religious schools, and schools’ ethos and values can be based on shared human values rather than on religion. There is no “magic ingredient” in faith schools, as the head of a C of E school revealed in The Independent on 15/6/01: “The fact that we select those who are supported by parents is the key defining factor in the kind of pupils we send out into the world.”

Faith schools that operate genuinely inclusive admissions policies in difficult neighbourhoods often share the same social problems and poor discipline as other schools.  For example, the school outside which headmaster Philip Lawrence was stabbed intervening in a pupil gang fight was a Roman Catholic one.  Church schools do sometimes get poor Ofsted reports and are put on “special measures” as The Way ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium admitted. And many ordinary state schools get excellent Ofsted reports for their ethos and values.

One has to doubt the commitment to truth and integrity of schools that encourage parents to take up religious observances simply in order to get their children into a religious school. The head teacher of an Oldham C of E school was reported in the Times Educational Supplement of 22/6/01, as “happy to admit that many ‘Church of England’ parents actually attend services with the express purpose of winning a place at his school.”

“Religious minorities need their own schools in order to preserve their culture and beliefs.”

It is understandable that, with 6840 publicly-funded Christian schools, members of other faiths are demanding public funds for their schools, but community needs should not be allowed to override the needs of children for an education that opens windows onto a wider world.  Culture and beliefs can be transmitted at home. There is often a gulf between the religious segregation that older generations and “community leaders” want, and what young people in those groups want, as Lord Ouseley’s report on Bradford (Community Pride not Prejudice, Bradford Vision, 2001) noted: “What was most inspiring was the great desire among young people for better education, more social and cultural interaction…­ Some young people have pleaded desperately for this to overcome the negativity that they feel is blighting their lives and leaves them ignorant of other cultures and lifestyles…”   Young people realise that being taught in religious ghettos is not a good preparation for life in a multi-cultural society.  The Ouseley report also observes “signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one indicator of this trend…­There is “virtual apartheid” in many secondary schools in the District.”

Other well-informed commentators criticise the multi-culturalist orthodoxy. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, social researcher, journalist and Muslim, writes in After Multiculturalism (The Foreign Policy Centre, May 2000): “…traditional multiculturalists believe that equity means that funding Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish schools must also mean state funding for Muslim and Hindu schools where there is sufficient demand, as there often clearly is.  After Multiculturalism, we need to take a different approach – to fairly represent the society we live in without breaking it up further into minority groups aided and abetted by the State…­there should not be state-funding for state schools of any religion.”  Women of Asian heritage have been amongst those opposing the expansion of religious schools: “…­we believe that single faith schools will mean more discrimination and ­a greater stranglehold of the most conservative, anti-women and communal individuals over our children’s education and out communities as a whole…” (London Development Education and South Asia Solidarity Group, Autumn 02).  A 2005 Islamic Human Rights Commission survey found that only 42.9% of Muslim females and 49.7% of Muslim males preferred Muslim schooling.

Satisfying the demands of some members of minority groups should not take precedence over working towards a cohesive and tolerant society.

“Parents have a right to educate their children in the faith of their choice.”

We respect the rights to freedom of belief and to education, and understand the desire of parents to bring up their children with the family’s beliefs.  However, it is not the job of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children, and states are not obliged to provide schools catering for every shade of belief or philosophy:   “…­it is one thing for parents in private to bring up their children to believe what they, the parents, think true and important. It is quite another for parents to expect that the state should undertake the role of transmitting such a belief.  The state has its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens.  It must design a system of education that serves that end, as well as promoting the interests of children.”  (Humanist Philosophers’ Group, Religious Schools: the case against, BHA, 2001.)

Groups lobbying for religious schools sometimes cite the First Protocol, Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, Part 2:  “No person shall be denied the right to education.  In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”  But Amnesty International UK, in Amnesty (September – October 2000), stated: “This article guarantees people the right to access to existing educational institutions; it does not require the government to establish or fund a particular type of education.  The requirement to respect parents’ convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state.  However schools can teach about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.”

The curriculum in some private faith schools would certainly appear to contravene another human right: “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”  (Article 13, Convention on the Rights of the Child,adopted by the UN, 1989).

If you understand and accept these arguments, you might consider joining Humanists UK, or making a donation to our Faith Schools appeal.