A report commissioned by the Church of England claims that faith schools are better at building relationships with their local communities than non-religious schools.
But critics say that the report does not demonstrate this, and instead gives church schools credit for the extra work they have to do as a result of their religiously restrictive admissions policies.
The study by Professor David Jesson at York University, analysed ratings given to 700 primary schools and 400 secondary schools by Ofsted inspectors for promoting community cohesion.
The researchers gave schools a score of one if they were rated "outstanding", through to four if they were given an "inadequate" judgment. The findings showed both faith primary schools and non-religious primaries scored an average of 2.2 overall. But at secondary level, the faith schools scored an average of 1.86, compared to 2.31 for non-religious secondaries.
Of the 74 secondary faith schools surveyed, almost a third (32 per cent) were rated "outstanding" at community relations, while around one in seven (14 per cent) of the 271 non-religious secondaries were given the same grade.
The report assesses the meeting of the legal duty that all maintained schools in England now have to promote community cohesion. This duty was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and came into effect on 1 September 2007. Schools’ compliance with the duty is inspected by Ofsted.
Professor Jenson and the Church of England are claiming their survey as "clear evidence" that faith schools are awarded "substantially higher" grades for community cohesion than other schools.
However, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education and community schooling, warned that the Ofted criteria for cohesion are not robust enough.
Church of England schools are only satisfying a benchmark that fails to consider admissions policies or the religious curriculum of faith schools, he pointed out this morning.
“Building community cohesion is vitally important and we congratulate all those schools that have been working hard to meet the duty', Dr Romain declared.
"But the most pressing issue is whether the criteria used by Ofsted are sufficient."
While school linking projects and classroom discussions of diversity are commendable, inspectors should also consider the impact of discriminatory admissions and the limited teaching of RE on cohesion, Romain added.
"Meetings with other groups have little merit if the children move in closeted circles most of the time and do not receive a broad education in class," he said.
Meanwhile, Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs for the British Humanist Association, while acknowledging that "some Church schools do appear to have shown a greater enthusiasm at reporting on the implementation of their duty to promote community cohesion than some community schools" says that "the Church of England’s report does not show that faith schools overall improve community cohesion, as it tries to claim."
He continues: "The study ignores that, as a result of admissions policies based on religious discrimination, faith schools have a much greater need to promote community cohesion than others with a wider intake. As a result, faith schools get rewarded for holding exchanges with other faith schools whereas community schools by their non-selective intakes have pupils from different backgrounds who therefore learn from and about each other by their daily interaction without the need for special steps."
Moreover, says Copson, "there is no evidence of faith schools improving cohesion with the non-religious, even though most teenagers self-define as non-religious and this is not addressed by Ofsted reports."
The Church of England's report also reaches different conclusions to recent independent research, the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia points out.
"Many church schools do indeed work hard to promote good community relations," said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. "But in mixed areas people of other faith and different culture or belief do not live in books or in classroom exercises, they live down your street - and you need to meet them on a regular basis. That is why admission and employment policies based on religious selection, which have undoubtedly led to segregation in many areas, are so damaging."
"Professor Jesson's report needs to be evaluated carefully and considered in relation to the considerable body of independent evidence that paints a rather different overall picture. Examples of good practice are to be encouraged. But they should not be allowed to push away genuine problems."
In terms of direct issues of community relations, the four most significant recent reports have been the 2008 Runnymede Trust report ‘Right to Divide?’ (which examined religious schools in their full historical, cultural, political and educational context, interviewing 1,000 stakeholders, including, parents, pupils, governors and teachers); the Oldham Independent Review report in the aftermath of the 2001 riots there (the Richie Report); the 2009 Cantle report on community cohesion in Blackburn and Darwen and the 2001 Cantle Report, following similar disturbances in Bradford and Burnley.
All four pieces of research directly connect religiously restrictive admissions policies with the isolation of particular communities in the major urban conurbations and resulting tensions.
Richie identified educational as well as residential mixing as very important for breaking down barriers, and recommended that three Christian secondary schools in Oldham that had no Muslim pupils should be required to take at least 20 per cent non-Christians.
Professor Ted Cantle went further, suggesting a 25 per cent reserve in 2001, and in 2009 saying that the level of segregation and its negative impact in Blackburn and Darwen was “high, growing [and] extensive”. But local faith schools have so far refused the report’s call for a change in admissions policies.
Cantle said that many of their attempts to promote inclusion were “imaginative” and “committed”, but no substitute for a genuinely mixed intake. Religiously selective policies were, he said, “automatically a source of division” in the town.
The Runnymede Trust, meanwhile, argued that schools backed by faith communities could play a valuable role in the overall educational mix. But in order to do so, its report argued, it was necessary that they end selection on the basis of belief, give children a greater say in the way they are educated, integrate their RE into the national curriculum, seek to serve the most disadvantage in particular (a point also emphasised by Ekklesia) and nurture young people’s sense of identity in a way that goes beyond religion.
See also: 'Faith schools and community cohesion', by Simon Barrow - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10691 
'Databank of independent evidence on faith schools' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/independent_evidence_faith_schools