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CMRE Forum roundtable, 20th September 2017

Should we allow faith selection? Should the 50% cap be lifted from faith selective schools to allow their expansion?

With a view to increasing the number of good school places and thereby improving social mobility, the government has proposed a series of measures to ‘unlock’ new supply from ‘premium’ Sponsors from the independent sector, from HE, grammar school groups, and faith communities. In respect of the latter it has proposed lifting the 50% cap on the number of children admitted by faith which must presently be applied when new free schools are oversubscribed – a provision which has thus far deterred some faith groups (and in particular the Catholic church) from getting behind the programme.

Using ethnicity as a proxy for religious diversity, and comparing free faith school intakes with those of faith designated and non-faith state-funded schools, the government claims that the effect that the cap has had, in terms of promoting inclusion and community cohesion in free schools, is questionable. They propose a series of alternative methods to support the achievement of these aims. In so far as the terms on which they should be asked to play their part in helping to meet increased demand for places across the system, Catholic free schools should, it suggests, be able to operate on just the same basis as already established faith designated schools and academies, which are allowed to prioritise children of their faith when they are over-subscribed, or indeed as voluntary-aided faith schools (including those which have converted to become academies), which can select up to 100% of pupils on this basis.

At a recent roundtable, members of members of CMRE’s Policy Forum and invited guests gathered to consider the cases for and against faith schooling and whether the government should be facilitating the growth of selective religious schools. The following is a summary of the main points of discussion and conclusions.

Main points of discussion and CMRE conclusions

While CMRE finds convincing arguments for strong safeguards to ensure faith schools are inclusive outward-facing, and properly engaged with the challenges facing modern Britain, we question the rationale for removing the 50% cap.

We also dispute the bases of the government’s claims about faith selective schools, and their relevance to its stated policy objectives.

Ethnic composition cannot not be taken as any more than a very rough proxy for religious diversity, and crucially is not at all related to socio-economic background. It was telling that the government has left off any data on the percentage of FSM pupils at these schools. As recent research by the Education Policy Institute has shown, the percentage of faith school pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM, a proxy for disadvantage) is below both the national average and the figure for non-faith schools; this is the case across faith schools as a whole and for almost all religious categories.[1] There was no mention in the Consultation document, as explicitly there was in the case of independent and grammar schools, of whether and how pupils of disadvantaged background should be prioritised.

The aforementioned data on the disproportional representation of the disadvantaged in non-faith schools, together with research controlling for socio-economic background characteristics, suggests it is doubtful that faith schools have in them the teaching and leadership capacity to improve disadvantaged pupils’ lot in terms of education equity.[2] The research cited suggests any small academic advantage of attending a faith school may be largely attributed to selective admissions.  Faith schools appear primarily to benefit the already advantaged. Teachers and leaders of these schools are probably not very well qualified to improve equity and help raise social mobility. In terms of inclusivity and the promotion of community cohesion, the government’s proposals for ‘strengthened safeguards’ suggest it is doubtful of the degree to which they contribute to this end also.[3]

Research suggests that the principal reason for general investment in genuine diversity of provision, is that it is the pre-condition for competition.[4] The presence of faith schools specifically in a school system may or may not improve outcomes at state schools nationally in this way.[5] It is difficult to judge whether the fact that they are religious schools is especially relevant for this effect,[6] and whether increasing the number of faith schools would increase gains from competition.

Finally, the commitment of selective faith schools to the government’s stated policy priorities is questionable. The Catholic church have focused on reasons why they cannot get behind the free school programme, instead of looking for ways to make it work. There has been little or no interest from groups that want to set up schools of a Catholic character but which do not have a bishop’s official support. Neither have the religious orders been forthcoming.

What is constraining new faith school development by Catholics is not, as has been suggested, government policy, but canon law, which is in need of reform. Title III provisions in respect of education should be focused on what Catholic schools teach, not who they are for. The right to educate one’s children in keeping with one’s religious and philosophical convictions does not entail an obligation on the state to fund selective Catholic (or other religiously selective) schools.

The basis of such arrangements as exist in England is a mutually agreed partnership – as with all partnerships, either side has the right to revisit and seek to renegotiate terms that are reflective of present and future priorities. The stipulation that new faith schools should restrict the number of places available for people of their faith community is consistent with the priority previous governments have attached to moving towards a more integrated school system. The case for its removal in view of other priorities is not convincing enough to warrant the change. Indeed, consistent with our recommendations with regard to academically selective schools, CMRE believes the application of this principle should be broadened. Better still faith-selective practices should be curtailed in favour of faith-blind lotterised admissions wherever there is oversubscription.

Rather than the government conceding on this point in face of arguments from canon law, it is incumbent on selective faith schools to consider their position in relation to the priority of widening the access of disadvantaged pupils to good school places and a fairer share of the country’s education equity.

Bishops should consider the case for designating and re-designating schools as ‘missions’.[7] The provisions of canon law in respect of the latter are far less prescriptive than the former. New ‘missions’ should be purposed to outreach, social justice, and service, and should be considered an opportunity to prioritise non-Catholics, while perhaps reserving 10% of capacity for people of faith to provide the necessary ‘faith capacity’ to ensure the education provided in such contexts is meaningfully based on Catholic values. ‘Catholic missions’ should be challenged in their admissions policies to give express priority in particular to the education of the poor and the marginalised, in keeping with their founding purpose in this country.

As with participation in the free schools initiative, so faith groups should be encouraged to give further consideration to sponsorship of MATs targeted to non-faith schools in need of improvement. However, it is for the faith group, not the government, to decide whether they have in them the teaching, management and leadership experience and expertise required for improving disadvantaged pupils’ lot in terms of education equity.

- James Croft

[1] See key findings and this piece by authors Rebecca Johnes and John Andrews.

[2] Gibbons, S. and Olmo Silva (2006) compare the achievement of pupils at faith and non-faith-based state-maintained schools at the end of their primary education. This study estimated that there is only a ‘small advantage’ (approximately a 1% increase on age-12 examination results) from attending a faith-based primary school, and surmised that the so-called ‘faith school effect’ is largely attributed to differences ‘between pupils who attend these schools and those who do not’, arising in turn from autonomy over admissions policy – a thesis the authors explore further in Gibbons, Machin, and Silva (2008) and Gibbons and Silva (2011). In the latter study Gibbons and Silva find small gains from faith school attendance between the ages of 7 and 11, which increases achievement by up to 2.7 percentile points (0.10 SD) in the test score distribution. This gain, however, is linked to autonomous admissions and governance rather than religion. Secular foundation and voluntary-aided schools show similar gains, while faith schools under closer control of local authorities show no gains.

[3] Department for Education (2016: 33, para. 12).

[4] West and Woessmann (2010).

[5] Himmler (2009), including an indicator of pupils’ previous achievement, analyses school-level central exam scores in upper-secondary education in the Netherlands and finds that competition, measured as the number of Catholic schools in each municipality, raises achievement in non-Catholic schools: a one SD increase in competition raises achievement by 0.15 SD. (The author tests for endogeneity in competition, using Catholic population shares in each education market, but test statistics indicate that it is not a problem.) However, Allen and Vignoles (2010) analyse whether the share of pupils in secondary faith schools impacts GCSE exam achievement in neighbouring schools. Using a sample of over 500,000 pupils, a value-added approach, and IV models with early-to-mid twentieth century levels of Catholic population shares as instruments for Catholic school competition at the county level, the authors find no evidence that Catholic school competition improves achievement, while some results indicate that they increase pupil sorting. When analysing the effect of overall faith school competition without IV models, results are similar.

[6] See Gibbons and Silva (2011).

[7] The introduction of this designation of course would have no effect on their English legal status as schools, with all the responsibilities and obligations that that entails.



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