Does religious selection lead to social-economic selection?

April 14, 2016

Socio-economic selection due to religious selection

In December 2013 an exhaustive study of all faith secondary schools in England by the Fair Admissions Campaign showed a correlation between religious and socio-economic selection. It found that, on average, the faith secondary schools that did not have a religiously selective over subscription policy admitted 1.40% fewer pupils entitled to free schools meals (a key government measure of deprivation) than would be expected if the schools admitted local children. In contrast, those faith schools that had a fully religiously selective over-subscription policy admitted 30.43% fewer such children. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s findings can be found at the ‘Overall averages’ page at A briefing is also available.

In September 2014 further findings were revealed that found while on average grammar schools were twice as socio-economically selective as religiously selective schools, because religiously selective schools were more numerous they (at the primary and secondary stages combined) made a twice as great an overall contribution in making the state funded school system in England more socio-economically segregated than grammar schools.

A survey commissioned by The Sutton Trust and published in December 2013 (found in its report ‘Parent Power’) showed 6% of parents in Britain with a child at a state school admitted to attending church services that they would have not otherwise, so that a child could go to a Church School. Among parents of the most affluent socioeconomic group A this figure rose to 10%. The Trust surveyed this topic again in August 2018 (for its report ‘Parent Power 2018‘). It found 7% of parents had personally attended religious services in order to access a school and that 31% knew someone ‘personally’ who had used this tactic, with parents from higher socioeconomic groups more likely to know others who had done this. Considering that only 25% of pupil places in the state funded schools in England and Wales are at faith schools, and that some of these faith schools do not reward Church attendance (many instead show preference to baptised or local children, or are simply not oversubscribed), the Trust’s surveys points to widespread abuse at those that do show preference to families with a record of Church attendance.

In January 2014 the Pastoral Research Centre released data suggesting that baptism may be being manipulated – the admission policy at most Catholic schools shows preference to baptised Catholics. The Centre showed that while the number of baptisms of children under the age of one in England and Wales was in long term decline, the number of baptisms of those aged over one had risen dramatically over the previous decade. The change is consistent with parents having children baptised as the child gets nearer to school age, as part of a strategy to increase their chance of being admitted to a popular Church School (and educated school alongside more aspirational families).

A 2015 poll for ITV found 12.6% of parents admitted to ‘having pretended to practice faith in which they did not believe’ with the intention of gaining access to a school. It suggests the prevalence of religious cheating may be increasing.

A Department for Education commissioned research report published in 2018 found that children from both economically deprived as well as minority ethnic backgrounds have a significantly reduced the chance of getting into popular faith schools. People of Black and South Asian heritage were especially at risk of indirect racial discrimination. The authors argued ‘possible explanations must focus on the admissions practices of Church schools‘ (p35) and noted our ‘… findings imply that the patterns of segregation in Church schools are not explained by [parental] preferences, and are, at least in part, due to children failing to gain admission at chosen schools‘. (p38)

Faith school performance due to the pupils admitted

It has long been established that the stronger exam performance and high school rankings of schools in the faith sector is explained by the social and ability profile of their pupils:

  • Can Competition Improve School Standards? The Case of Faith Schools in England(2009) by Dr Rebecca Allen and Dr Anna Vignoles found ‘… significant evidence that religious schools are associated with higher levels of pupil sorting across schools, but no evidence that competition from faith schools raises area-wide pupil attainment’.
  • Faith Schools: Admissions and Performance(2009) by the House of Commons Library reviewed evidence on the relationship between admissions and performance in faith schools and found that ‘recent research on primary schools suggests that performance difference can largely be explained by prior attainment and background. The remaining differences are due to parental self-selection and selection methods used by some faith schools’.
  • Faith Primary Schools: Better Schools or Better Pupils? (2009) by Professor Stephen Gibbons and Dr Olmo Silva concluded that ‘results show that pupils progress faster in Faith primary schools, but all of this advantage is explained by sorting into Faith schools according to preexisting characteristics and preferences … it appears that most of the apparent advantage of faith school education in England can be explained by differences between the pupils who attend these schools and those who do not’.
  • Faith Schools, Pupil Performance and Social Selection’ (2016) from the Education Policy Institute concluded that lifting the 50% religious selection cap at faith free schools would undermine social mobility and not raise educational standards. In a detailed assessment of school standards at state funded schools in England, the report found that almost all the difference in attainment between faith and non-faith schools could be explained by the characteristics of the pupils admitted.
  • Should we adjust for pupil background in school value-added models? A study of Progress 8 and school accountability in England‘ (2018) by Dr George Leckie and Prof Harvey Goldstein for the University of Bristol School of Education, found the performance of some types of school was being artificially boosted by the Department for Education’s key school performance indicator ‘Progress 8’. The measure was supposed to be a much fairer marker of school performance than ones used previously, but it ignores the background of pupils.
    The authors therefore created their own ‘Adjusted Progress 8’ measure that also took into account the age, gender, ethnicity, language, special education needs, free school meal entitlement and deprivation experienced by pupils. They found that “… adjusting for pupil background qualitatively changes many of the interpretations and conclusions one draws as to how schools in England are performing. For example … dramatic changes are seen for Grammar schools and faith schools whose high average pupil progress reduces substantially once the educationally advantaged nature of their pupils is taken into account.” (p21)

Serving the affluent distorts the mission of Church Schools

Religious selection places faith schools in a conflicted position, as its inflates their denomination’s worship and baptismal figures, while the performance of schools is boosted by the admittance of children from more affluent families. However, most Church Schools were set up to educate the disadvantaged. The National Society, which created most Anglican schools, was established to provide schools for children from poor families. Similarly the precursor to the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales was named the ‘Catholic Poor School Committee’.

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