Faith schools and social selection

By Jonathan Bartley
March 3, 2010

Alex Kennedy at Accord (of which we were a founder member) has done some excellent work looking at religious admissions and social selection, in particular with regard to the extent to which faith schools take vulnerable children. It seems that faith schools take far fewer when compared to other schools of a non-religious character, particularly when it comes to measures such as free school meals or children with Special Educational Needs.

He has pointed out that a report by the House of Commons library (pp4) has the figures on free school meals (FSM) and faith schools, showing that all of the denominations with more than a handful of state schools have fewer FSM pupils on average than either non-religious schools or national averages.

Neither do the headline figures tell the whole story. Faith schools were disproportionately established in poor areas and therefore their low FSM figures are especially low when compared to the areas that they are located in.

In 2008 the Children Schools and Families Select Committee heard evidence from two academics who specialise in looking at the issues around social selection and school admissions. One of them, Rebecca Allen, said:

"In my most recent research - I have written a paper on England, and a separate paper with Anne West on London - I was able to show that religious schools have higher ability and lower free school meal intakes compared with the neighbourhoods in which they are located. To give you an idea of the magnitude of those effects, if we take a community school and a voluntary-aided religious school, both located in a neighbourhood with exactly the same levels of deprivation, the community school is likely to have about 50 per cent more free school meal children than the voluntary-aided school. There are big regional differences; the differences between voluntary-aided and community schools are very marked in London and quite marked in the north-west, but the differences are much less in the rest of the country. Interestingly, I have also looked at foundation schools. Although they are located in relatively affluent parts of the country, on the whole they look much more like community schools than voluntary-aided religious schools in terms of their intake, relative to the neighbourhoods within which they are located. Part of my research links to Anne West's. She has completed surveys of school admissions policies, and I have been able to match the data that I have produced with her data sets on school admissions policies. We are trying to look at the association between particular types of admission criteria, and the extent to which schools have advantaged intakes. We can show that there really is a direct correlation between the number of potentially selective admissions criteria that schools use, and the extent to which their intakes are advantaged.”

It is also of great concern to see that they take far fewer children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). According to the House of Commons report, overall faith schools have a lower proportion of pupils with SEN. In 2008 1.2 per cent of pupils at mainstream state faith schools had statemented SEN and 15.9 per cent unstatemented. This compares to 1.7 per cent statemented and 18.9 per cent unstatemented schools with no religious character. This pattern has remained broadly the same over the previous seven years.

Alex Kennedy also points out that it is worth noting the statistics on ethnic diversity in the context of the areas in which schools are based, rather than simply against national averages. For example, Catholic schools are more ethnically mixed than the national average, but tend to be located in more urban areas.

Some of the most egregious forms of covert selection have been outlawed by the new schools admissions code. However, it seems inevitable that religious admissions criteria themselves, even if applied in the 'objective' manner required by the current code, will always lead to social selection.

This is because the 'objective' test that is normally relied on is one of regular attendance at a place of worship. This has long been the case at church schools and has been adopted by Orthodox Jewish schools in light of the JFS verdict.

The first issue is that we know that many parents who are more motivated will 'play the system' by attending church when they would not otherwise have done. It may be that they normally worship at home, don’t worship at all or worship at a different church. Whichever is the case, only those who are organised and value education highly will go to the trouble. Many of the clergy who support Accord cite as a reason for joining their uneasiness with the system of 'signing off' parents for the sake of school admissions.

The second issue is that those who attend church are, in any case, disproportionately middle class. A survey in 2009 by Tearfund found that 26 per cent of British people attend church at least once a year, with “AB social class (34 per cent) and owner occupiers without a mortgage (32 per cent)" among the groups over-represented and “C2 social class (21%); DE social class (22%); single people (19%) and council tenants (19%)” among those under-represented.

The same survey showed 15 per cent of adults attend church at least every month, but many school admissions policies require regular church attendance at a particular church over the course of several years. In an oversubscribed school, such policies will inevitably select out all but the most religious and/or most organised and determined parents.

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