Diversity, attainment and faith schools

By Andrew Copson
4 Sep 2008

Quite a lively debate has opened up on faith schools policy reform following the launch of Accord. What is clear from this is that those who justify discrimination in admissions and employment in state-funded religious schools are losing the argument from principle.

Britain is celebrated as increasingly diverse. At the same time there is a large and growing consensus that because shared bonds and values are important, our public institutions should be open to those from all backgrounds. It is far better to have schools that reflect the diversity of the areas that they serve than separate ones for different religious and non-religious groups.

That is a point acknowledged this week in a leading article in the evangelical Church of England Newspaper. It expresses concern about a “tribal” society and suggests that selective faith schools can “put pressure on minority lay people to toe a clerical hard line version of their inherited tradition.”

It is a sign of how far we have come that the very basis on which churches now attempt to defend their schools’ policies is in terms of promoting inclusion and social cohesion. Last week the Faith School Providers’ Group argued that one of the reasons that it believed in religiously sponsored schools is because they are ‘open to applications of other faiths and none’. Of course this has to be qualified in the next line, which tacitly admits that popular faith schools can and do restrict access to those of their denomination – the reality that Accord seeks to address. But it's the thought that counts!

However, instead of arguing about the principle of inclusion, proponents of the current system are sometimes tempted to revert to scare tactics, by suggesting that what those calling for changes want is to shut down successful schools. But the fact is that Accord seeks the reform, not the abolition or take-over of faith schools. Moreover, arguments about achievement frequently confuse cause for consequence. Church schools, in particular, are on average more successful – because they attract more middle class families, not the other way around.

There is also evidence from the LSE and the Institute of Education that selection arrangements put off or discriminate against poorer families. It is true that part of the effect here may be because middle class parents are more attracted to religious schools, rather than that the poor are forcibly kept out. But in terms of effect, that does not make a difference. The key point is that if you put those same children into a school not religiously sponsored they would do just as well.

That this is so is backed up by a by the National Foundation for Educational Research. In the first ever large scale investigation comparing value-added scores in state-funded schools with and without a religious character, they found that the differences in attainment between church and community schools were ‘very slight’ and that ‘it seems likely therefore that the good “raw” results achieved by many church schools reflect the nature and quality of their intake’.

Many faith schools get good exam results, but there is no basis for claiming that this is because they discriminate in employment and admissions and teach their own curriculum of Religious Education.

If the government wants to open up the best schools to as many as possible, that is what they should do. The current restrictions point in the opposite direction, and towards less rather than more social mixing in a society that needs bridges rather than barriers.

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(c) Andrew Copson. The author is a member of the Accord steering group (http://tinyurl.com/5zt6jh), along with representatives of Ekklesia, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and others. He is is responsible for education and public affairs at the British Humanist Association (BHA).

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