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Church primary schools take fewer special-needs pupils than non-church schools, study says

05 October 2023

LSE research concludes that this makes church schools ‘hubs of relative advantage’

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CHURCH primary schools in England take proportionally fewer pupils with disabilities or special needs than non-church schools, making the former “hubs of relative advantage”, new research from the London School of Economics (LSE) concludes.

The research, led by Dr Tammy Campbell and published in the Oxford Review of Education this week, looks at reception-class admissions between 2010 and 2020: specifically in schools that recorded special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) pupils in their pre-school years, and those that already had an educational and health-care plan (ECHP). Both should be “manifest and salient” at the point of admission to qualify, it says.

In 2020, Roman Catholic primary schools admitted almost one quarter (24 per cent) fewer SEND pupils, and Church of England schools 15 per cent fewer than non-church schools, the research finds. It also found that a child with both SEND and free-school-meal eligibility (FSM) was estimated as having a 22-per-cent chance of attending a church school, compared with a 29-per-cent chance for a child with no FSM eligibility or SEND designation.

The paper also reports that, in 2019, 28 per cent of state-primary-school children in England attended faith schools — a proportion that has been consistent since at least 2000.

The analysis used the National Pupil Database: a census of children in state-funded education in England. The comparison appears to have been made between like-for-like schools.

The researchers go on to question “the existence, function and contribution of ‘faith’ schools . . . given the ‘faith’ schools’ general positioning in policy discourses as ‘raising standards through superior academic provision’”. They ask: “What does the seeming over-concentration of ‘advantaged’ children within ‘faith’ schools tell us about the workings of the marketised system premised upon ‘choice and diversity’?”

The paper concludes that schools that have the autonomy to administer their own admissions (all RC schools, and all C of E aided schools) do under-admit SEND children, but it acknowledges that context — social, financial, and geographical — could also be a factor.

The paper and its findings “do not provide any commentary on whether the tendency of ‘faith’ schools to under-admit children with SEND is inherently a positive or a negative thing for individual children”, the researchers say. Nor do they provide information on “individual ‘faith’ or non-‘faith’ schools that buck the overall trends”.

They conclude that schools should co-operate with local authorities in carrying out needs assessments for pupils, and in the development and review of ECHPs. They also have a duty to admit a young person to the school if it is named in their ECHPs, and to provide the educational support specified in the plan.

Church House, Westminster, concluded that the data was sound, and that like-for-like comparisons had been used to analyse, for example, smaller and rural schools.

The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said that C of E schools existed “to serve the whole community” regardless of faith, and that the Church was “committed not only to meeting its legal obligations, but to providing schools which prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable through ambitious and expansive visions for SEND and alternative provision”.

He concluded: “While the research gives no strong evidence that arrangements by admissions authorities for C of E schools are a barrier to SEND applications, the Church is taking active steps to promote equal educational opportunities through our National Professional Qualification (NPQ) programmes, which train leaders in evidence-based SEND practice, and supporting schools through trauma informed practice, and SEND networks for leaders.”

A statement from the Catholic Education Service called the research “inaccurate”, however, and said that RC schools educated a much higher proportion of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds than other schools.

“If parents decide that the local mainstream Catholic school is not the best fit for their child’s particular needs, they might instead opt for another school, such as a Catholic special school or a Catholic school approved for ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] pupils, of which there are 26 in England and Wales,” the statement said.

“Catholic schools nationally take 50 per cent more children than other schools from the 10 per cent most deprived areas, and about 25 per cent fewer from the 10 per cent most affluent areas.”

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