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
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."