Church schools are smaller and more selective than secular schools. Discipline, pastoral care and staff ratios are no different.
We all know people who suddenly find faith when the time comes to send their children to school. Believing that church schools are better than secular, otherwise non practising folk start going to church on a regular basis, swelling congregations, getting noticed by the vicar and being generous at the collection plates.
Even though only 6% of the UK population regularly attend church or mosque or synagogue or temple, 26% of children attend a school with religious character, or “faith school”. 98-99% of those are “church schools”; affiliated to the Anglican or Catholic Churches.
If you are one of the 6% to whom faith is important a church school must de facto provide a “better education”.
If you are not one of the 6% then “better” in the context of church schools usually means some combination of better academic results, better discipline and better pastoral care.
Are academic results better in church schools?
This is a highly contentious issue.
In short, evidence suggests that pupils achieve grades which are one seventh of a grade higher at GCSE in church schools than in secular schools. Similarly at primary level, in 2014 (for example) church schools accounted for two thirds of the top marks in SATS exams, despite only being one third of the number of schools.
However, scraping beneath the headlines more thorough analyses have shown that it is not the faith of the school which accounts for the academic performance of the pupils, but the socio economics and demographics of the schools’ pupils. In other words, exam performance is faith neutral and simply reflects relative wealth.
The reality is that children at (Anglican and Catholic) church schools have parents who are, on average, wealthier, higher achieving, more supportive of their children and more ambitious for their children.
How does this come about? Well, church schools, especially “faith heavy” schools, can select pupils on religious criteria if they are over-subscribed. As simple as that. And how do those pupils and their parents demonstrate their religious credentials? Cue the reference from the local vicar!
Is behaviour and discipline better in church schools?
Cinema and television imagery is enduring. Many of us can picture a scene of an unruly classroom in a state school. And we can picture a cane wielding teacher from a religious order in a church school. However out of date (probably over 50 years old) these caricatures inform our opinions of discipline in the classroom. For a more up to date viewpoint Ofsted reports evaluate pupil behaviour in English schools. There is no net difference in Ofsted’s opinion of behaviour comparing the latest reports for faith and secular schools.
Is pastoral care better in church schools?
How about pastoral care? Why would church schools with more practising Protestant or Catholic staff be inherently more caring and attentive to individual needs than secular schools? In the absence of evidence (either way) we can only use the data we have, which is staff numbers.
The number of staff in a school can make a difference to pastoral care. More specifically, the number of suitably qualified staff (teachers, nurses, therapists) and the number of assistants, teaching or otherwise. A pupil is more likely to receive the attention they need if there are more members of staff.
So, are staff to pupil ratios higher in church schools? No. In the most religious of schools there is evidence of more parental involvement as assistants than in secular schools. But not for the vast majority of church schools.
Are church schools on average smaller than secular schools? Yes. And that’s where the perception may lie; that smaller village church schools provide better pastoral care than larger inner city secular schools. But again, is it the religion that’s providing that difference in pastoral care or the size of the school and the socio demographics of its pupils? No evidence.
So, should you choose a church school? To choose a church school on the basis of faith makes perfect sense, of course. To choose a church school because you think it provides a better education simply by virtue of being a faith school, doesn’t make sense. There is no evidence. Do pupils at church schools perform better in exams? Yes they do, because church schools are selective.