In 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.
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.