Benefits of faith schools overestimated, study suggests

14 September 2018

Being brought up in a religious home is more likely to lead to academic success at 18

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BEING brought up in a religious home is a more likely predictor of academic success at 18 than attending a faith school, a new study suggests.

Educational attainment in the short and long term: Was there an advantage to attending faith, private, and selective schools for pupils in the 1980s? was published on Tuesday by the Oxford Review of Education.

Researchers from University College London’s Institute of Education looked at the schooling and attainment of 10,000 people born in a single week in 1970 in England and Wales.

They found that, when social background, early cognitive tests, religious upbringing, and the type of schooling — grammar, secondary modern, or private — were taken into account, any advantage conferred on a pupil from attending a religious school was short-lived, and that the real academic benefit came from having a religious upbringing at home.

Pupils who attended a Roman Catholic or Anglican secondary school to age 16 in the 1980s had a slight advantage over their peers who attended a non-faith school, but it amounted to just a third of an O-level grade.

And, by A level, and then at degree level, the study found that there was no academic advantage in attending a faith school, compared with a pupil who attended a non-faith school but had a religious upbringing at home.

Professor Alice Sullivan, the study’s lead author, said that the advantages of faith schools had been “over-estimated”.

“Pupils who were raised in religious homes were more likely to succeed academically than those from non-religious backgrounds, whether they went to faith schools or not, and any small academic advantage that could be due to faith schools themselves was short-lived. The much-vaunted ‘Catholic school effect’ was mostly explained by the fact that Catholic school pupils were usually from Catholic homes.

“We can speculate that the academic advantage of a religious upbringing at home may be due to cultural differences, such as differences in parenting practices and attitudes to education, as well as to religious belief or practice itself.”

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The authors of the study said that they did not investigate what “being brought up according to a religion” meant, or what aspect of it contributed to academic success, but said that this factor was key to children’s success, and that parents must be wary of “exaggerated” claims by faith schools.

Those attending faith schools in the 1980s were disproportionately from the relevant faith background.

Most of the pupils in the cohort attended non-faith comprehensive schools: just four per cent attended Church of England secondary schools, and eight per cent attended RC schools.

Researchers noted, however, that there was no data on the extent of religious practices within faith schools, and that even “non faith” schools included compulsory collective worship.

The Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, Nigel Genders, said: “While we are rightly proud of the academic record of Church of England schools, our focus is on educating the whole child, aiming to impart wisdom as much as knowledge and skills.

“Our schools are there for everyone, not just the faithful, and we are committed to serving the whole community.

“Church of England schools remain popular with parents because they value the Christian values we teach.”

A study published on Thursday by The Sutton Trust, Parent Power 2018, says that one of the most common tactics used by parents to get their children into a good school was to attend church services.

The report says: “Some strategies, while not limited by cost, are still highly morally questionable, such as attending church only to secure admission to a preferred school.”

It says that attending religious services was the most common strategy used by parents in lower social classes, as this did not come with a cost attached. 

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