Bashing faith schools with big blunt instruments can’t detract from their success

School AdmissionsIn the world of business, if a company was producing a better product than many of its competitors, was known as much for the quality of its ethos as its results and had demand significantly outstripping supply, we would judge it to be a success. We would rightly expect to see such a popular company expanding and increasing its market share.

The world of education is a very different affair though. All of these successful traits can be applied to the average faith school. The overwhelming majority of faith schools are Christian – only 2 per cent are not. 68 per cent are Church of England and 30 per cent are Roman Catholic. These Christian schools are more likely to be rated as good or outstanding than non-faith based schools. They also have stronger academic results, both at primary and secondary level. Special needs pupils are likely to do better if they attend a faith school too.

However, this isn’t enough to satisfy campaign groups including the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign. Their main sticking point (at least publicly) is that most of these schools have some degree of selection based on faith. The consequence of such selection is allegedly elitist schools, which not only segregate children on religious and ethnic grounds, but also are skewed towards serving the affluent at the expense of the deprived. this is according to the Fair Admissions Campaign’s press release that accompanied the launch of a new national map of all secondary schools in England last week. The map, described as “groundbreaking” by renowned broadcaster, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, presents data on free school meal eligibility and Pupils with English as an Additional Language. The results of this analysis have found that whereas comprehensive secondary schools with no religious character admit 11 per cent more pupils eligible for free school meals than live in their local areas, comprehensive Church of England secondaries admit 10 per cent fewer, Roman Catholic ones admit 24 per cent fewer, Muslim ones 25 per cent fewer and Jewish ones 61 per cent fewer. These figures should be be treated with a certain amount of caution though (see the Church Mouse’s comment below for further detailed analysis).

Whilst the claim that there is a socio-economic divide that affects faith schools is credible, it’s not exactly ground-breaking. This has been known for quite some time. Research in the Guardian from last year drew similar conclusions. The Christian think tank, Theos also produced a sterling report this autumn on faith schools, that worked hard to be non-partisan. More than an Educated Guess agreed that there was ‘indirect socio-economic sorting’, but that this was common with any oversubscribed school.

I explored this issue too in some depth earlier this autumn in a post entitled, Are faith schools really ‘selecting wealthy pupils by the back door’?, so I’m not going to go over the same arguments again. This is something, though, that faith schools should be able to address openly. The Church of England are certainly aware that this is not an ideal situation; both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Oxford who is head of the Church of England’s education board have raised concerns about selection processes. Church schools have a long tradition of serving the poor and disadvantaged and that fact has not been forgotten. As it stands though, since 2007 when the schools admission code was introduced, state schools cannot legally consider parental income, education or marital status along with various other bits of information that could in theory be used to discriminate subjectively against some applicants.

There is very little that the schools can be blamed for. Instead it is an inevitable consequence of and applications system that allows competition and choice. As long as a local school is successful and oversubscribed there will be a significant desire by parents to have their child taught there. Parents who care intensely about their son or daughter’s education will be willing to go the extra mile to see that happen. And so often those parents will value that education because they themselves are more likely to be well-educated, have stable lives and decent jobs. Research suggests that they are more likely to have a religious affiliation too. Faith schools have very little control or influence over these factors.

Attacking faith schools over the proportion of pupils that are eligible for free school meals is effectively using a very blunt weapon to do whatever damage it can without intelligently addressing a much bigger range of socio-economic issues, some of which pose awkward questions for secularist opponents. It is right that the role and admissions processes of faith schools is debated between supporters and opponents, but groups such as the Fair Admissions Campaign need to work harder to come up with some positive solutions to meet the demand for places at faith schools. Putting a lot of energy into producing a map that doesn’t tell us a great deal we didn’t already know isn’t the way to win an argument. It’s even less helpful when it makes little sense. Take the school I went to in Dorset as an example. St Osmund’s is a Church of England middle school which is 20 per cent selective. If you look at the figures for free school meals you will see it has more pupils eligible than the local area average and yet it is ranked in the worst 50 per cent. Conversely it has less pupils with English as a foreign language, but is ranked in the top 50 per cent. Such information is more than just confusing; it is misleading.

Fair School Admissions Map St Osmunds

In a recent YouGov poll asking parents what influences their choice of schools, only 5 per cent gave  ‘grounding of pupils in a faith tradition’ as a reason. that compares to 77 per cent who said ‘academic standards’. If non-faith schools were perceived as being as decent as their local faith schools then would selection by faith be such a cause for complaint? This is not the fault of the faith schools.

In response to last week’s coverage, the Church Mouse said: ‘Truth is, let the [faith] schools expand. They wouldn’t reject anyone.’ Very few church schools would deliberately choose to be divisive in who they accept. The correct response to the frustrations over admissions is not to suppress the schools and beat the religion out of them, but rather to build them up and make all that is good about them available to a wider group of children beyond those whose parents are willing to go out of their way to provide them with the best education available.

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Categories: Children & families, Church, Education

10 replies

  1. Useful piece Gillan. Maybe I’m missing something but I’m struggling to understand why you refer to the 2007 School Admissions Code. The Code currently in force was updated in 2012.

  2. It is important to understand how bogus the statistics being used are. The Guardian data blog helpfully provides the full data tables used, so we can see the full facts.

    When you compare the overall proportion of kids on free school meals at CofE and non-denominational schools, you’ll find that for primary schools the difference is 3% and secondary schools 1%. However, they generated alarmist sounding stats saying that 67% of faith primaries and 60% of faith secondaries had a lower proportion of kids on free school meals. They achieved this by asking whether the school had higher or lower proportions than their local average. You’d expect this to return the stat that half have higher and half have lower. So 67/60% higher is actually only a small variation from a normal distribution. Then you ask for this variance, by what amount were they off the mean – and the result, as I’ve already shown, is tiny and in most cases not statistically significant.

    The Fair Admissions data uses another trick to achieve the same outcome. Their stats are ‘proportional’ differences. So if the local average on free school meals is 10%, and the church school admits 9% on free school meals, most people would say that is 1% difference – not significant. However, the Fair Admissions campaign said that this represents a 10% proportional difference, which sounds a lot more significant than it really is. Also worth noting that the Fair Admissions data is only on secondary schools, where there are only a couple of hundred ‘faith’ schools out of around 3,000 secondary schools.

    Often the headlines are generated when these groups lump all ‘faith’ schools together, and average them up. The majority of CofE schools don’t actually control their admissions policies, but are controlled by the local education authority – this is noted in the small print on the Fair Admissions website – so they cannot possibly exert the kind of admissions effects claimed.

    However, it is not sensible to compare, say, a small Jewish school, which is set up specifically to cater for the needs of orthodox Jews, with a Church school set up to provide education to the local community. One is selective by design and intent, catering for a niche, whilst the other is inclusive by design and intent catering for all.

    The reality of this data is that the variance in the background of kids in church schools is very small (between 1 & 3% on free school meals), and this is almost certainly due to the fact that a good school in a poor area will attract middle class kids from the surrounding areas. Nothing to do with schools covertly weening out the poor kids. These campaign groups have not even begun to ask why there is a variance – they’ve just exaggerated the size of that variance and assumed, without evidence, that this can only be because of admissions policy.

    The Fair Admissions Campaign, The Accord Coalition and the British Humanist Association (which are mostly the same people) are putting huge resources into this campaign – the BHA annual report actually says that their anti-faith schools campaigner helped the Guardian write it’s piece on this – and it is really important that the facts are set out clearly and without distortion.

    • This is a pretty disingenuous attempt to mask the clear evidence that schools applying faith-based selection offer a lower proportion of their places to children from more deprived backgrounds than the norm for their local areas. On the other hand, church schools that do not have faith-based selection are little different from the norm. This is not about faith schools per se, but about faith-based selection.

      Quite apart from the key point that discriminating against children in accessing state-funded services on the basis of parental religion is indefensible, this new analysis highlights the glaring misfit between faith-based discrimination in admissions and teaching on social justice.

      To pick up a few of the detailed points:
      – National averages are irrelevant, as they depend on where the schools happen to be located. Catholic schools – which are more numerous than CofE at secondary level – tend for historical reasons to be located in urban areas that are more deprived than the national average. What matters to individual parents and children is not whether a given variety of school is perfectly evenly spread across the country, but how easy it is to access a good school in their local area.. And if you’re a child from a deprived background, it’s simply a fact that you are less likely to be offered a place at your local selective church school than a child from a more affluent background living in the same area, (whether that area is overall more or less deprived).

      – The Guardian’s data published in 2012 looked at “areas” defined by local authority and postcode boundaries. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s analysis is more sophisticated, using up to six different parameters in order to build up for each school an area of the right size to match its intake. But the conclusion from all these angles is the same – there is significant socio-economic bias against disadvantaged children at schools that select on the basis of faith.

      – It is untrue to say that “The majority of CofE schools don’t actually control their admissions policies, but are controlled by the local education authority”. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s current mapping covers secondary schools. Only around 12% of CofE secondary places are at Voluntary Controlled schools, where indeed the LEA controls the admissions policy. As the Fair Admissions Campaign says on its website, “A majority of Church of England places are not subject to religious selection” as a result of the inclusion of VC schools and free schools (where faith-based selection is restricted to 50%).

      – It is also untrue to suggest that there are proportionately only a few secondary faith schools. Even excluding the Voluntary Controlled schools, 16% of state-funded secondaries are faith schools with admissions policies involving faith-based selection, A recent letter to The Times from Lord Alton and others claimed that “The Catholic Church is the largest provider of secondary education in England”. And it is Catholic schools that are the most selective.

      – While they are just 16% of all schools, 46% of the worst 100 schools in terms of socio-economic discrimination are religiously-selective faith schools – and that 100 includes 27 grammar schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio schools. The conclusion is undeniable.

      • How much does it cost to go to church? What is the admission fee to go to mass? You can only discriminate against the poor by charging fees that they can not afford. If you services are free how can you discriminate against the poor. Anyway I thought that well educated intelligent people didn’t go to church because they were clever enough to know better. It seems from the data that a lot of well educated people are going how odd.

      • I don’t disagree that selective faith schools have a higher intake of better off children, but the point is that much of this is out of their control. The same can be said for grammar schools. Grammar schools set their entry requirements and then you find it is the wealthy families who pay for private tuition to coach their children to pass the 11+ exam.

        I’m not happy that poorer pupils are less likely to attend selective faith schools. Churches and schools should be ensuring that all those who come to them are treated fairly, but if the majority of parents who are approaching those schools are better off, there is a limit to what the schools can do with the current system. This doesn’t make the entry criteria in themselves wrong.

        • It does make the criteria wrong when it’s clear that they lead directly to the socio-economic discrimination you describe. Faith schools without faith-based selection do not show the same bias. The churches/church schools therefore have the choice about whether or not to live out their ideals.

          Of course, there will always be ways in which the more organised and articulate will favour their children. But one would have thought that churches, of all institutions, would be doing what they could to level the playing field, as opposed to tilting it further.

        • Certainly at the top of the Church of England at least there is a desire to see change, which I welcome. Part of the issue is whether those families of a particular faith should be able to have the opportunity to send their child to a school that supports that faith as part of our national education system. If the answer is no, then we shouldn’t need these entry criteria. If the answer is yes, then the question is then whether and how more places should be made available. Because of current restrictions, faith schools can’t tilt their applications processes towards less well off families, even if they want to.

        • No-one is arguing for discrimination against children whether they come from more or less affluent backgrounds. This is about a level playing field. And it’s clear that faith-based selection means there is not a level playing field and the tilt is against the disadvantaged. Knowing that, it is difficult to understand how organisations that preach social justice choose to carry on with these policies.

          Of course, some church schools already inclusive, including new ones, and, as you say, the senior leadership in the Church of England (but definitely not the Catholic Church) are moving in the right direction, despite internal opposition.

          Faith schools will always be relatively more attractive to people following that particular faith. It’s already a privilege to have that option in the system at all – no other special-interest group has it. But the proportion of school places subject to faith-based selection is vastly greater than the percentage of the population that attends places of worship regularly (even including those who do so opportunistically in order to get their kids into a favoured school). I assume that’s why the Bishop of Oxford, the CofE’s head of education, proposed a couple of years ago that the % of faith-based places should be around 10%.

          I don’t think many people would argue if that were the limit. But today it’s 100% in many schools.

  3. A business to succeed has to be selective and accept the market value. Faith schools and private schools do that. I would question why non-faith people want to involve themselves with faith schools, except on the grounds of sex segregation relating to male sex being dominantly put in the front seat and certain clothing forced upon girls – veils and burkas for instance. Think of the outcry if girls in Catholic schools had to wear nuns clothing. As I have stated else where relating to the bleating of non-faith adherents at faith charities, non-faith people should counter the situation and provide schools as well, not try to keep attacking things that are in demand. And, more importantly, if faith schools are educationally and academically better then maybe non-faith adherents should find out why and adopt the successful methods rather than ape about banking chests.

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