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Nick Wright reviews evidence that admission to faith schools is skewed

In England, the more far-reaching a school’s ability to select its pupils, the more it is able to determine its results. Of course, educational attainment is not the only factor that underpins the distinctive ability of some schools to fill Cabinet posts, senior positions in the civil service, top media jobs and powerful roles in industry and commerce. Peer relationships and social networks forged during school and university years are a powerful factor too.

For most, however, effective parental choice in selecting a school depends on a murky mix of happenstance and strategy.

The Sutton Trust asked parents what steps they would consider to get their children into the school of their choice. Just under a third (32%) of parents in ‘professional’ occupations with children aged 5 to 16 had moved into an area which they thought had good schools while nearly one in five (18%) had moved to the catchment area of a particular school. By contrast, a similar number (17%) of working class parents admitted taking no special steps to select a school for their children.

One interesting finding was that overall 6% admitted attending church services when they didn’t previously so that their child could secure admission to a church school. Such self-proclaimed hypocrisy rises to 10% of upper middle class parents surveyed.

That invaluable monitor of middle class mores, the Daily Telegraph, reports that ‘rising numbers of children are being given late baptisms amid a scramble for places at the most popular Roman Catholic schools.’

The paper adds that at the same time fewer ‘cradle baptisms’ of children under one are taking place in both Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Public discussion about the educational advantage gained by religious affiliation, no matter how nominal, has for a long time been a ‘no go’ area for policy makers and politicians although every school improvement professional carries a mental map that fits their area into a matrix of attainment and admissions, religion and results, schools and selection criteria.

This studied agnosticism is beginning to change.

For parents with an enduring faith, those whose religious belief is an essential foundation of their moral outlook, this situation is deeply distressing. It is distressing also for many of those whose faith is more nominal but who feel pressured into pretence.

I can draw on two experiences from a part of South London where the proximity of large swathes of social housing alongside rapidly gentrifying Victorian streets means that geographical proximity to a school does not necessarily guarantee levels of social segregation sufficient to reassure the anxious middle class parent that a culturally homogenous educational experience for their children can be assured.

Two similar London School Board schools, within sight of each other, one Church of England, the other nominally secular, provided the immediate choices for my neighbours’ two primary age boys.

By that mysterious alchemy that shapes institutional behaviour one school had a predominately white, substantially middle class, intake while its neighbour was predominately black African, Afro Caribbean and working class.

By the common consent of teachers, parents and governors the latter, although nominally secular, was infused with a strongly religious ethos while the former displayed a quintessentially Anglican reserve in these matters.

My neighbours, seized by an early middle age attachment to religion, began attending church. The mother choosing to sit in what she described as ‘atheists row’ the father, a constitutionally more enthusiastic joiner, drew closer to the altar with every Sabbath until his wife anxiously confided that she rather thought he was ‘getting God’.

It was this very divergence in their encounter with organised religion which made them both confront the hypocrisy of the enterprise – its effect on their self respect – and draw back.

During this period I found myself campaigning in local elections when the character and quality of the local schools was a live issue. A young black women with two children in a buggy took my proffered leaflet and went on her way; stopped, read the leaflet and came back to challenge me with the accusation that the passage calling for a secular education system meant that I was against religion.

I had to confess that I did not believe in God and that, while I respected others right to private devotions, I did not think schools should have a confessional character or that they should select on the basis of religious affiliation.

The discussion that ensued revealed our wide range of agreement on most inner city controversies but the issue that secured the promise of a vote was our common position that institutionalised hypocrisy was not the best foundation for either belief or behaviour. Her sense of righteousness was as offended by the presence in her church of people who were not believers as was mine by the advantage that this conferred to some. As so often in London the issues of race and class were unspoken but hugely present.

Work by the Fair Admissions Campaign has highlighted how socially selective faith schools are.

Church of England schools admit 10% fewer children eligible for free school meals; Roman Catholic schools 24% fewer; Jewish schools 61% fewer; and Muslim schools 25% fewer.”

This impressive piece of research, backed by a revealing interactive map, shows just which schools are the most socially selective. http://fairadmissions.org.uk/map/

Most striking are the facts revealed by a comparison – against the local norm – of the schools that differed most measured by the number of children of free school meals and by EAL numbers.

“Only 16% of schools select by religion but they are vastly overrepresented in the 100 worst offenders on free school meal eligibility and English as an additional language. They make up 46 of the worst 100 schools on FSM eligibility and 50 of the worst 100 on EAL. If grammar schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio schools are excluded, religiously selective schools account for 73 of the worst 100 on FSM eligibility and 59 of the worst 100 on EAL.”

The campaign research found that “schools with no religious character typically admit 11% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected.”

Other non-religious schools in the state system have also proved adept at replicating and even exceeding the level of selection that faith schools have developed.

And the Anglican Church has responded to the publication of the Fair Admissions Campaign findings with the assertion that the latest national data, “published in the Department of Education’s 2013 School Census, shows that 15% of pupils at CofE Secondary pupils are eligible for Free School Meals and that his is the same as the average for non CofE schools.

Its chief education officer, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, dismissed the findings as a ‘wilful misrepresentation… We do not recognise the picture of church schools the survey paints. We are proud of the way in which our schools enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed.’

The Campaign argues that while the Census shows Church secondaries admit 14% of pupils eligible for free school meals such a comparison between the national average for CofE secondaries and for other schools is overly simplistic as it does not take account of the fact that different denominations of secondaries are in different areas – with Church secondaries more likely to be in cities where the rates of eligibility for free school meals are higher.

“This is why the Campaign’s research, which is also based on the 2013 School Census, compares schools to their local areas, not to the national average. It finds that CofE schools are 10% less inclusive than would be expected if they admitted children living in their local community, while schools with no religious character are 11% more inclusive.

“Furthermore, CofE schools whose admissions policies permit all their places to be allotted on religious grounds admit 31% fewer children eligible for free school meals than would be expected, while CofE schools whose admissions criteria do not allow religious selection admit 4% more.”

It is important to maintain a sense of balance about these facts. Faith schools in general, undoubtedly select in ways that privilege some groups over others and overall, disadvantage working class children. But some faith schools are distinguished – both by accident and by intent – in catering for overwhelmingly working class children communities.

This detailed data set helps to put the discussion about selection on a more rational and informed footing. It locates the role of faith schools in the wider picture of an education system that is being subjected to unprecedented centrifugal forces unleashed by a Department of Education that mobilises the rhetoric of diversity to further fragment the school system and dissipate the reserves of expertise and insight that local authorities have built up over many decades of supporting a diversity of schools.


Key Findings

Comprehensive secondaries with no religious character admit 11% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected given their areas. Comprehensive Church of England secondaries admit 10% fewer; Roman Catholic secondaries 24% fewer; Jewish secondaries 61% fewer; and Muslim secondaries 25% fewer.

There is a clear correlation between religious selection and socio-economic segregation: Church of England comprehensives that don’t select on faith admit 4% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected, while those whose admissions criteria allow full selection admit 31% fewer.

16% of schools select by religion but they are vastly overrepresented in the 100 worst offenders on free school meal eligibility and English as an additional language. They make up 46 of the worst 100 schools (and 67 out of 100 if we exclude grammar schools) on FSM eligibility and 50 of the worst 100 (55 if we exclude grammar schools) on EAL.

The most segregated local authority as a result of religious selection is Hammersmith and Fulham. While 15% of pupils nationally are eligible for free school meals, the segregation between the religiously selective schools and other schools is almost double that (27 percentage points).

The map represents the first time any data has ever been published on the degree of religious selection by faith schools. We estimate that 16% of places at state schools (or 1.2 million) are subject to religious selection criteria. This compares with 5% of secondary places in grammar schools and 7% of all places in independent schools

More at http://tinyurl.com/p6x5saa

Caption

Grey Coat Hospita lpictured above not only requires weekly church attendance for five years but also gives points for ‘Parent holding elected office in the church’, ‘Regular practical involvement by a parent in the church’ and ‘Regular involvement in other aspect of church life’. 14% of pupils are eligible for FSM, compared to 33% locally – putting it in the worst 1% of schools nationally. 25% speak EAL, compared to 48% locally – putting it in the worst 2% of schools nationally.

 

This is a version of an article that first appeared in Improvement, the magazine of the school improvement professionals union the Aspect group of Prospect

 

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