The inclusive schools coalition Accord, has responded to research presented at the Royal Economic Society today showing that faith schools increase social segregation and fail to improve local results overall.
The paper by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, both part of the University of London, also argues that it is the privileged intake of such schools which accounts for their better than average test results.
The study, entitled 'Can school competition improve standards? The case of faith schools in England', tracked 550,000 students in state secondary schools to examine the impact of religious schools on attainment and social stratification. While there was little evidence that faith schools drive up standards, they were found to cause segregation by class, ability and religion.
Commenting on the report, the chair of Accord, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said: “It is a sad situation when children are 'sorted' into schools according to the beliefs and socioeconomic status of their parents. This research shows that areas with a high proportion of religious secondary schools educate children no better, but divide them far more."
He added: "After yet another independent report showing the seriousness of these issues the government must know there is a problem. The question is: when will they act?”
The new study finds that areas with more religious schools have schools that are more socially divided and indeed more segregated in terms of the academic achievement of their pupil intake.
Faith schools, funded mostly or entirely by the taxpayer, educate 15 percent of secondary-aged children in England. The researchers point out that they potentially offer parents the means to choose between schools without the cost of moving house, since they usually give priority in admissions based on religious affiliation – though many regard this as unfair and inappropriate in a publicly-financed system.
The authors of the study say that faith schools could theoretically help to improve educational standards by exerting competitive pressure on nearby non-faith state schools. But the research finds no evidence that competition from faith schools raises pupil attainment in an area.
Parental choice of school and the introduction of a quasi-market for school places has been a central plank of government policy for two decades. The idea is that market forces and competitive pressures should improve standards in English schools.
But it has also long been recognised that parental choice of schooling may also lead to socially divided schools. If schools are able to select students of higher ability who are easier to teach, segregation by social class and ability will worsen across schools.
This research uses innovative methods to identify whether faith schools in England play a positive role in enhancing the educational standards in nearby schools or whether they tend be linked to greater segregation of different types of pupils across schools.
Faith schools are a legacy of the 1902 settlement between the government and the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches which were the principal providers of schooling in the 19th century.
Despite a steep decline in church attendance across all denominations and limited support for the principle of state-funded religious schooling in attitude surveys, there continues to be relatively high demand for places at religious secondary schools.
On a typical Sunday in 2005, just six percent of the population attended church, with under two percent in Anglican or Catholic churches. Yet 15 percent of children are educated in religious secondary schools. In 2005, 64 percent of respondents agreed with this statement in an ICM poll: “Schools should be for everyone regardless of religion and the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind”.
Religious secondary schools have an impact all other schools in the area. Some parents are more likely to choose faith schools than others. Socio-economically advantaged pupils and high achieving pupils are more likely to be enrolled in faith schools.
This Institute of Education and London School of Economics research considers whether areas with high numbers of faith school places have higher levels of academic achievement and/or higher levels of social and ability segregation across schools.
Overall, the results suggest little positive effect on education standards from the competition effect exerted by faith schools. Education standards in areas with high numbers of faith school places are no better than elsewhere. But social and ability divisions across schools are worse in areas with a large number of faith schools.
The Local Education Authorities (LEAs) which have the highest proportion of students in faith schools are: 35 percent - Wigan; 37 percent - Sefton; 37 percent - Hackney; 37 percent - Blackburn with Darwen; 38 percent - Southwark; 39 percent - Bolton; 44 percent - Lambeth; 46 percent - Hammersmith; 47 percent - Liverpool; 59 percent - Kensington and Chelsea; 65percent - Westminster.
The Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which co-founded the Accord inclusive schools coalition (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/) along with teaching union ATL and the British Humanist Association, has also welcomed the new study and called on faith school providers to engage in serious dialogue over change, rather than dismissing each new piece of research evidence that does not suit their interests.
Questions and criticisms about faith schools and social cohesion were raised in a recent Runnymede Trust report. The researchers sought to look fairly at both positives and negatives. But their findings were given short shrift by the Church of England’s Board of Education and the Catholic Education Service.
‘Can school competition improve standards? The case of faith schools in England’ by Rebecca Allen and Anna Vignoles (April 2009), is available from the Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London.