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Theos calls for peace on schools

04 October 2013

DIOCESE OF YORK

Success! The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, celebrates at Bishopthorpe Palace with graduates from the Archbishop Sentamu Academy, in July

Success! The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, celebrates at Bishopthorpe Palace with graduates from the Archbishop Sentamu Academy, in July

CHURCH schools have become a proxy in the battle between opponents of the part played by religion in public life, and those who believe that it still has a place, a new report from the religion and society think tank Theos suggests.

The report, More than an Educated Guess: Assessing the evidence on faith schools, says that the research about faith schools is "sparse and inconclusive", but the issue, Theos suggests, has become an "ideologically loaded battleground on which to fight larger battles about the role of religion in an increasingly plural society".

The report calls for a more constructive debate, in which participants could acknowledge the "partiality and contested nature" of many of the conclusions, and be more open about the values that underpin it.

"Differing conceptions of pluralism, secularism, and the primacy of equality over other moral concerns are often the true points of tension rather than any one group having a unique concern for quality education or the well-being of pupils."

The report assesses a wide range of research relating to church schools' perceived academic success, alleged "divisiveness", and concerns over those with their own admissions policies. Although the report uses the term "faith schools" as shorthand for what are officially "schools with a religious character", it acknowledges that, in practice, the research it puts under the microscope refers almost exclusively to Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, which together account for about 7000 of the maintained primary and secondary schools in England.

Theos's analyses are fairly even-handed. It dismisses claims that faith schools are racially and ethnically divisive. Some research shows that they may have a positive impact on cohesion, the report says. "At worst, their efforts would appear to be on a par with the broader education system."

On the other hand, while the report finds clear evidence of a faith-school effect in enhanced academic achievement, it says that the research suggests that intake is responsible for this rather than the impact of a faith-based education.

In its review of existing research on schools that are their own admissions authority, the think tank finds evidence of indirect but unintentional "socio-economic sorting". It says, however, that the same is true of non-faith schools in the same position.

Unusually, the publication includes responses from leading participants in the debate, including the RC Bishop of Nottingham, the Rt Revd Malcolm McMahon OP, who chairs the Catholic Education Service; Simon Barrrow, of the Accord Coalition; and the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who chairs the Board of Education.

One way to overcome problems posed by oversubscribed schools, Bishop Pritchard writes, is to recognise their success and allow them to expand. "This way, the problems of over-subscription and resulting ad-missions criteria would be greatly reduced."

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