“Faith schools give parents greater choice”
The existence of faith schools actually restricts choice for many parents.
Faith schools are often defended in terms of parental choice. However, the proliferation of faith schools serves to restrict choice for parents who do not want a faith-based education for their children, or who do not share the religion of their local school. In some parts of the country, parents are left with little other option but to send their child to a school with a religious ethos. In 2017 18,000 families were sent to faith schools against their preference.
Consider this: according to data from the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey, only 15% of British people identify as Anglican (including just 3% of people aged 18-24). Yet over 20% of state schools in England are Church of England. The disproportionately high percentage of Church of England schools, combined with the increasingly competitive nature of school places, invariably means that many families who are not Anglican will have little choice but to send their child to an Anglican school, even if that is not what the family wishes.
This problem isn't limited to Church of England schools. In recent years the shortage of school places has seen local authorities attempting to place children of atheist and Christian parents in Sikh schools and in one case a child from a Muslim family was allocated a place in an Orthodox Jewish school.
Though religious organisations want more faith schools, most parents and the general public just want good local schools. Research shows that most parents choose schools based on their locality and academic standards – very few choose faith schools for their religious characteristic.
But if a family who are not of the faith still wish to send their child to a faith school (perhaps because it is the closest to their home, or for some other reason not related to religion), they can still be turned away. Desperate families sometimes lie about their faith, attend church, or even have their child baptised into the faith of the school, in order to increase their chances of getting in. In this way, religious selection in faith schools unfairly limits parental choice.
Schools and academies with a religious designation are exempt from equality law when it comes to admissions. When Voluntary Aided faith schools and religious academies are oversubscribed, they are permitted to use religious criteria to give priority in admissions to children, or children of parents, who practice a particular religion. In many cases schools will require evidence of baptism or religious practice from a minister of religion.
Quite simply, families of no religion, or of the "wrong" religion, are discriminated against.
This is in spite of the fact that the vast majority of voters, including those from every religion surveyed, disagree with religious selection in school admissions!
A move towards an inclusive and secular education system would mean no child would be discriminated against on account of their parents' religion or belief, and that all schools would be equally appropriate for parents of all faith backgrounds.
“Faith schools achieve better results”
The evidence on this is weak, but nothing suggests there's something magical about a 'faith ethos' when it comes to academic success. Where church schools do achieve marginally better results, it is usually down to faith-based selection which also leads to social selection which unfairly benefits middle class and better-off parents.
Research published in 2016 by the Education Policy Institute found that after adjusting for "disadvantage, prior attainment and ethnicity," pupils in primary schools with a faith ethos "seem to do little or no better than in non-faith schools".
Pupils in secondary schools with a faith ethos record only "small average gains" over non-faith schools or "just one-seventh of a grade higher" in GCSE results. The Education Policy Institute study concluded that such minute gains came with a risk "of increased social segregation". It also noted that "the average faith school admits fewer pupils from poor backgrounds than the average non faith school." Faith schools can operate extremely convoluted admissions procedures and many are able to select their pupils from more affluent backgrounds than non-faith schools."
More recently in 2017, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that there is "no evidence" to suggest denominational schools in Scotland achieve better results than their non-denominational counterparts.
The influence of religion on education may even be detrimental to some results. In 2017, academics at Leeds Beckett and Missouri universities published a paper arguing that excess time spent on religion in schools harmed progression in other subjects including maths and science.
“Faith schools are better at teaching children morals”
The teaching of basic morals is not solely the domain of faith schools. All schools teach children basic values such as honesty; integrity; compassion; tolerance; and many others. There is no evidence that faith schools do it better.
All maintained schools in the UK have to promote basic human values in education. Under section 78 of the Education Act (2002) schools in England are required to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of their pupils.
Within this, all schools must actively promote the values of "democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs".
These and basic human and civic values, such as compassion, truthfulness, tolerance, respect, responsibility, forgiveness, generosity and justice are often promoted as uniquely religious in faith schools. E.g. as 'Christian values', but this is untrue and biases children's religious outlook, painting non-Christians as morally inferior. SIAMS reports (inspections of CofE faith schools by the Church) often criticise schools when they promote values such as compassion without presenting them as being uniquely Christian.
Education about ethics and morality in schools should be based around the universal principles of reason, empathy and the concept of fundamental human rights, rather than forced through the lenses of religious teachings.
"Faith schools are necessary to protect parents’ religious freedom"
The state has a duty to provide schools and to respect parents’ religious freedom. The case law is clear that this doesn’t create a duty to provide faith schools.
You certainly don't need faith schools to cater for families of different religions in the UK. Schools that are open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children whatever their religion and belief backgrounds, do that by default.
While it is understandable that there are parents who wish for their child to be raised according to their religious tradition, they don't have the right to that via the state, and the general taxpayer should not be the one to foot the bill. Religion and belief communities exist to promote their worldviews, schools don't. Faith schools undermine many parents' ability to raise their children in accordance with their religion/belief.
It's also a mistake to assume that religious people necessarily want faith schools. Many people of faith are opposed to religious discrimination, don't see faith inculcation as the state's role, or have other reasons for supporting inclusive schools.
People live out their religion or belief in many ways, we don't need faith-hospitals, or faith-job centres or any other faith based/divided public service to enable people to exercise their religion. The UK is unusual in having state funded faith schools, many countries with higher levels of religiosity don't have them.
An inclusive school would be secular – that is it would neither be specifically religious or atheist; it would fulfil the educational requirements of all children as individuals. There's nothing anti-religious about schools that are open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children, whatever their religion and belief backgrounds.
A secular education system is perfectly consistent with protecting individuals' religious freedom.
“Faith schools don’t do any harm – why not just let them be?”
Faith schools build division into society and undermine religious freedoms. The harms vary depending on how aggressively they push their religious ethos.
Faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster the segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines and are antithetical to freedom and equality. In Northern Ireland, faith schools have been an unmitigated public policy disaster. As Britain becomes increasingly religiously diverse it needs to avoid heading in that direction.
Organising children and young people's education around religious identities is the worst possible response to Britain's growing religious diversity. Schools are our golden opportunity to foster understanding and tolerance amongst tomorrow's generation. It is utterly misguided to squander this opportunity by continuing to fund and promote faith-based education.
Of course there is a range and some faith schools are more harmful than others. Some faith schools push their religious ethos very aggressively. It's particularly sinister that some of them seek to shield children from secular knowledge and actively turn pupils against the society in which they will grow up. And even faith schools which do not do this legitimise the idea that inculcating religion is a valid purpose of education – meaning they validate the promotion of intolerant attitudes elsewhere.
Traditionally CofE faith schools were seen as more 'light touch' but parents, and staff at these schools report an increasing pressure to promote a more rigorous religious ethos throughout all aspects of school life. Legitimise the idea of organising state education around religious identity/inculcation, opens the doors for the worst aspects of faith schools.
Faith schools of one type lead to other religious leaders demanding state schools of their own. It's inconsistent to argue for Christian faith schools, but against Muslim, Sikh, Scientologist, Pastafarian etc. schools.
Department for Education guidance on 'promoting fundamental British values' calls it "unacceptable" for schools to "promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background". Yet faith schools do exactly that. The Government's own data shows that faith schools are directly responsible for creating a ghettoised education system, where Britain's Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim schools are mono-cultural zones that do nothing to foster greater social cohesion. Schools from various religious traditions exclude and isolate pupils whose parents don't share their religion, encouraging children to see each other's differences rather than what they have in common.
Faith schools also have the means to deny children the right to a thorough education on relationships and sex. RSE is now mandatory in all English schools, but the Government permits faith schools to "teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith", excluding vital information about LGBT issues or contraceptives. In addition, parents will still be able to opt their children out of RSE classes. This will leave children from conservative religious backgrounds without the impartial, appropriate education they need in this area.
“We are a Christian country, so therefore it is only right that we have Christian schools that teach our Christian values”
It’s hardly true to say that 21st century UK is a “Christian country.” Meanwhile many majority-Christian countries don't have state faith schools.
According to the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey, only around 40% of people in Britain identify as Christian. In fact, over half of Britons have no religion at all, including an astonishing 71% of people aged 18-24. Christians, and indeed people of any religion, are now a minority group in the UK.
But all of that's a distraction. Many countries with much higher Christian populations (like the USA) don't have state funded faith schools.
It's hard to argue that Christian churches should have state funded schools, but Islamic, Jewish, Jedi or Scientologists shouldn't.
“Children can just opt out of religious activities at faith schools”
Opting children out and excluding them isn’t ideal, as well as being both actively and passively discouraged by many faith schools. It’s far better to ensure all aspects of the school day are inclusive of all pupils.
The UK is the only Western democracy to legally impose worship in publicly funded schools. The law in England and Wales provides that children at all maintained schools "shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship". Northern Ireland and Scotland have similar laws. Even in schools with no religious designation, the worship must be "wholly or mainly of a Christian character".
Parents have the right to withdraw children from collective worship, but many parents regard this as an unreasonable imposition on both themselves and their children. And even though parents have withdrawal rights, this is often far more difficult to exercise than you might imagine. In fact, it's sometimes even difficult for children to opt out of religious activities in non-religious schools! Within faith schools, the practical difficulties in exercising the right of withdrawal become insurmountable when worship encroaches into the classroom and religion permeates the whole school experience.
It should be noted that the children themselves do not have the right to opt out of collective worship before the age of 16.
“Church schools are for everyone”
Despite all of its talk of 'inclusivity' the Church of England appears increasingly keen to turn the schools it runs into places of worship. It fails to understand that there's more to inclusivity than not having a discriminatory admissions policy.
Church schools are increasingly under pressure from the CofE to assert a robust 'Christian ethos' – even in schools with a religiously diverse and largely religiously indifferent school community. Doing so is disrespectful to both pupils and parents. Many parents don't want somebody else's religion imposed on their children whilst at school.
In addition to Ofsted inspections, 'church schools' have religiosity inspections by their local dioceses to ensure that they are "distinctively and recognisably Christian institutions". Pressure to receive a favourable diocesan inspection may well explain why we're now seeing some church schools increasing their religiosity by worshipping at the beginning and end of each day and before and after lunch; introducing prayer corners in classrooms; having regular visits from priests, and even employing them as 'school chaplains'.
This proselytism and evangelism in church schools undermines parental rights and children's religious freedoms. Senior staff in church schools are usually practising Christians (a job requirement for many headteachers) and many parents feel uncomfortable raising concerns about the way in which religion is being promoted in their child's school, fearing their perfectly reasonable stance will be regarded as 'anti-religious' by the religious authorities running the school – and indeed they are often given a frosty and defensive response.
And as previously mentioned, many faith schools including CofE schools actively discriminate against those who are not of the faith.
“Faith schools help to relieve the burden on the state by funding our children’s education”
The vast proportion of funding for faith schools comes not from the religious body, but from the state. It comes from your taxes.
In the case of Voluntary Aided schools, all of their running costs and 90% of their building costs are funded by their state. The remaining 10% of building costs are supposedly payed for by the religious body. This is typically met by fundraising among the parents, or by further government grants.
All other types of faith school in England & Wales are funded 100% by the state.
“We’re stuck with them”
Not at all. A growing number of groups and individuals are campaigning for the end to faith schools. We believe the abolition of state-funded faith schools is not only an achievable goal, but an absolute must if the UK is to be a country where people of all backgrounds and all walks of life can coexist peacefully, and where individual liberty of belief and expression is respected.
Politicians often recognise the problems with faith schools, but feel we're stuck with them or consistently overestimate their popularity – our national campaign is designed to give a voice to the people of all faiths and none who oppose faith schools. Few other European nations fund faith schools, and where they do this is being questioned. For example, the governing party in Sweden has recently proposed ending the role of publicly-funded religious 'free' schools. If we take action together, change is possible!
Faith school facts
A selection of facts and figures about faith schools.
- Just 17% of respondents agree with the statement: "Publicly funded schools should be able to select pupils on the grounds of their religious beliefs".
Source: Censuswide | Related: British public opposes religious influence in education, poll finds (2018)
- Voters of all religions and beliefs overwhelmingly oppose school selection by faith
- Source: Populus/Accord Coalition | Related: Proposed changes to faith-based admissions and new faith-based academies
- 58% of the adult population oppose faith schools and only 30% say they have "no objection" to faith schools being funded by the state.
- Source: Opinium (2014)
- Only one third of adults in Britain approve of state funding for faith schools. Nearly half actively disapprove, and the rest say they 'don't know'.
- Source: YouGov/Westminster Faith Debates | Related: Opinion poll shows big opposition to faith schools (2013)
- Only a quarter of people in Britain who might have a school-age child say they would send him or her to a faith school.
- Source: YouGov/Westminster Faith Debates | Related: Opinion poll shows big opposition to faith schools (2013)
- 72% of voters oppose state funded schools, including faith schools, being allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy, including 68% of Christians. Source: Populus
- People say that academic standards matter most in choosing a school. 70% said they would choose a school on the basis of its academic standard; 23% said they would choose on basis of ethical standards; 5% said they would choose on the basis of giving a "grounding in faith tradition"; and only 3% for "transmission of belief about God". Source: YouGov
- There is no evidence that religious ethos contributes to academic achievement in schools.
- Source: Institute for Public Policy Research| Related: "No evidence" that denominational schools are academically superior, study finds (2017)
- Primary faith schools are more ethnically segregated than schools of no faith.
- Source: Challenge, SchoolDash and the iCoCo Foundation| Related: Report confirms deep ethnic divisions in English faith schools (2017)
- Parents from more affluent backgrounds more than 80% more likely than average to fake religiosity in order to get into good selective faith schools.
- Source: The Sutton Trust | Related: Proposed changes to faith-based admissions and new faith-based academies
- Faith schools tend to be more socio-economically exclusive than non-faith schools. Comprehensive secondary schools with no religious character admit 11% more pupils eligible for free school meals than live in their local areas. Comprehensive Church of England secondaries admit 10% fewer; Roman Catholic secondaries 24% fewer; Jewish secondaries 61% fewer; and Muslim secondaries 25% fewer.
- Source: Fair Admissions Campaign | Related: New research reveals socio-economic segregation impact of faith schools (2013)
- Only 1 in 8 of dioceses surveyed advise their schools not to engage in faith-based selection. In contrast, 1 in 4 advise them to reserve some places on faith grounds.
- Source: Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education | Related: Church of England 'misselling school admissions policies' (2017)
- Northern Ireland parents increasingly want integrated education. In 2013, grammar schools and integrated schools had no empty desks, but there were nearly 7,000 vacant desks in Catholic schools— the equivalent of 12 empty schools.
- Source: The Belfast Telegraph | Related: Northern Ireland parents want integrated education (2013)
- Between January 2000 and January 2017 the proportion of faith schools increased steadily, from 35% to 37% of primaries and from 16% to 19% of secondaries. Source: House of Commons Library