Church schools are smaller and more selective than secular schools. Discipline, pastoral care, and staff ratios are no different.
Even though only 6% of the UK population regularly worship, 26% of children attend a school with religious character. These faith schools account for over 30% of UK schools. 98.5% of them are church schools, affiliated to the Anglican or Catholic Churches.
Figures vary across the UK. 95% of state schools in Northern Ireland are faith schools. As are 34% in England, 15% in Scotland and 14% in Wales. 42% of UK independent schools are faith schools.
Why there are so many church schools is partly due to historic reasons. Schools were established and owned by the churches. Where there was a church, there was a school, bringing education to the masses. When the Churches sold the schools to the State they did so on condition of retention of influence.
Church schools are popular, not only for the 6% of faith, but for those seeking for a better education for their children. In England, 54% of church schools were oversubscribed on first-choice applications in 2019. This compares to 43% for non-faith schools. People who suddenly find faith when the time comes to send their children to school, is a popular cliché.
Why are they so popular? Most people think that church schools get better academic results, have better discipline and pastoral care.
Evidence suggests that the perception is partly right, but actually flawed. Church schools do get marginally better results. But it is demographics, socioeconomics and parental involvement and ambition that probably account for the better pupil outcomes.
This article explores the pros and cons of a church school education.
Do church schools provide a better education?
No further validation is needed for the 6% for whom a faith led curriculum constitutes a better education. If faith defines your outlook, cultural identity, and heritage, then you will want a faith or church school for your child.
For others, one measure of a better education is to compare the Ofsted ratings for church schools and non-church schools. The proportion of schools with Good and Outstanding ratings in 2019 are as follows;
- Church schools; Outstanding 14.3%, Good or Outstanding 76.6%,
- All faith schools; Outstanding 14.6%, Good or Outstanding 76.6%,
- Secular schools; Outstanding 14.5%, Good or Outstanding 71.1%.
There is a slight difference, but not a convincing substantiation of church schools’ superiority. Let’s dig deeper into the perception that church schools get better academic results and have better discipline and pastoral care.
Are academic results better in church schools?
Evidence suggests that pupils in church schools do achieve higher grades than those in secular schools.
At GCSE, church school pupils achieve grades which are one seventh of a grade higher. A 2016 study Education Policy Institute added more detail. It suggested that pupils in Catholic schools achieve one sixth of a grade higher than the average pupil. Pupils in Church of England schools achieve one twentieth of a grade higher than the average.
In SATS exams, church schools account for two thirds of the top marks, on average. 84% of church school pupils achieve level 4+ in reading, writing and maths. This compares to 81% for the non-church school pupil.
More thorough analyses suggest that it is not the faith of the school which accounts for the academic performance. It is the socioeconomics and demographics of the pupils. In other words, exam performance is faith neutral and simply reflects relative wealth and parental engagement.
Better or wealthier?
One (inverse) measure of wealth is the percentage of children receiving free school meals. In 2019, 12.3% of pupils at English church schools qualified for free school meals. For secular schools it was 16.5%. Which suggests that the 34% of English schools that are church schools have wealthier pupils. Politically, the accusation is that church schools are not taking their fair share of poorer pupils.
The Catholic Education Service refutes this, using a different measure. It claims that 18.8% of its primary pupils live in the most deprived areas compared to 13.5% for all pupils. At secondary level it’s 16.5% versus 11.3%.
The argument is perhaps truer for Church of England Schools. On average its parents are wealthier, higher achieving, more supportive, and more ambitious for their children.
How does this come about? Well, church schools, especially Voluntary Controlled 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? I think the phrase is “pew barging”.
Is behaviour and discipline better in church schools?
Cinema and television imagery are 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, 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?
Are church schools, with more practising Protestant or Catholic staff, 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 such as teachers, nurses, and therapists. Also, 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. 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 is it the size of the school and the socio-demographics of its pupils?
Why people object to church schools
Church schools have their detractors. The two main arguments are that they overstate the importance of faith and they are socially divisive.
Periodic surveys suggest that most people think that the influence of religion is disproportionate in schools. For example, a 2014 Observer newspaper survey suggested that 58% of voters believe that faith schools should not be funded by the state or should be abolished.
In England, Catholic Schools and Church of England Schools are the largest providers of state education. 36% of all state primary schools are church schools (26% CofE, 10% Catholic). 18% of all state secondary schools are church schools (6% CofE, 10% Catholic, 2% other Christian).
Selective admissions, but on religious grounds
Perhaps the biggest criticism of church schools is that their admissions policies are divisive. As independent schools select on wealth, grammar schools on intelligence, so church schools select on faith. If you’re of the faith, your child can be admitted to this school. A school which is perceived to be better.
As a result, church schools distort parental behaviour, property prices and ultimately the social mix in the vicinity of the school.
The Catholic Education Service says that its schools have catchment areas that are ten times larger than community schools’. As such, any comparison on selection from the immediate vicinity is unrepresentative.
Is maintaining a faith blind admissions policy is the only way around this? If so, it won’t happen any time soon. The Catholic Education Service claims that 33% of pupils in Catholic church schools are not Catholic. Likewise, the Church of England claims that only 10% of its secondary school pupils are selected by faith. It refers to its schools not as faith schools but as “Church schools for all.”
The lower proportion of children on free school meals in church schools is a political issue. And church schools have a conflict; do they serve the congregation or the community? That’s why some church schools are talking about breaking the link between the church and school admissions. Going to church may no longer guarantee a place at a church school.
But the government is less keen to discriminate against faith schools. Knowing that the various Churches have a good track record in building and maintaining schools it is actively encouraging Church participation. After all, don’t we need more schools? And it is doing this by supporting plans for more voluntary-aided schools.
How church schools influence the curriculum
There are varying degrees of religious character in schools. Your child’s religious education may be a bit more than just a daily hymn and a weekly RE lesson.
Broadly speaking, religion influences six specific areas of schooling in a faith school. These are the curriculum, the religious education (RE) syllabus, the teaching of creationism, the nature of collective worship, the appointing of governors and teachers, and pupil admissions policy.
The more religious a school, the more the influence of each of these six considerations. However, the teaching of creationism is forbidden in state schools.
For state schools the degree of religious influence depends on the type of school. Community Schools and Integrated Schools (in Northern Ireland) have no or little religious character. Voluntary Controlled (VC) and Foundation Schools have a bit. Voluntary Aided (VA) Schools have a lot. Academies vary but retain the religious character of the faith school they succeeded.
Independent schools can pretty much do what they like. They can observe as much or as little religion as they please. It is no surprise therefore that some of the most secular schools are independent. And, at the other end of the scale, some of the more fundamentalist religious schools are independent. Unlike in state schools, independent schools can teach creationism or intelligent design as scientifically valid.
But, because they rely on fee income, independent schools respond to market forces. If the punters want to pay for a bit of fire and brimstone they will. Otherwise they’ll go to the happy clappy school down the road. 42% of independent schools are nominally faith schools. But only 11% of pupils are in a school which could be considered VA equivalent or “faith first”.
Opting out of Religious Education
Parents may request that their child opt out of RE classes in state schools, wholly or partly, and schools must honour that request.
Which of course, creates a logistical headache for schools as well as a sense of exclusion for the pupil.
There are proposals to replace RE with a new obligatory curricular subject based on “Religion, Belief and Values”. RE is 75 years out of date, the argument goes. And the syllabus is too similar to the confessional Religious Instruction. The new subject would explore philosophy and ethics.
These are the 66% of state schools and the 58% of independent schools that are nominally secular. The bad news for those seeking a truly secular state education is that they aren’t secular at all. Only 4% of schools are truly secular.
All state schools must teach Religious Education according to an agreed syllabus which is “spirit and values” in nature. And all state schools must provide a daily act of collective worship which must be at least “broadly Christian in character”.
Governors and staff are appointed irrespective of religious beliefs. And the local education authority sets admissions policies, not the church.
Voluntary Controlled and Foundation Schools
Voluntary Controlled and Foundation Schools differ from secular schools in that collective worship is according to the religious denomination. Also, they may teach the doctrines and dogma of their faith.
The religious cultures of the schools are helped in that 20% of teachers and 25% of governors may be selected on religious grounds.
Admissions policies for 75% of Voluntary Controlled schools in England are determined by the local education authority. But for the remaining 25% the school sets admissions policies with the result that more of the congregation are admitted.
Voluntary Aided Schools
In Voluntary Aided Schools there is a significant religious influence. It derives, in part, from the 50% of governors and staff appointed and promoted on religious grounds.
But it is the pupil admissions policies that really sets VA schools and their successor academies apart. School governors set admissions policies. Importantly, they can select pupils on religious grounds if the schools are oversubscribed. Which they often are.
“Faith first” schools
If your faith is the most important aspect of your identity, then you’ll most likely want to send your child to a school that better represents your world view, community, and cultural heritage.
Faith is everything in these schools and sets the academic agenda. For example, an Orthodox Jewish parent might consider a (private) school which taught a Jewish curriculum (Kodesh) in Yiddish in the morning and a secular curriculum (Chol) in the afternoon.
Similarly, a Muslim parent might consider a (usually private) school which devotes more time to The Qur’an, Islamic Studies and Arabic.
Likewise, there are (private) Christian schools who teach a more God centric curriculum such as the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum.
“Faith first” schools are a minority. In fact, they are barely 1% of all faith schools and less than 0.4% of all UK schools. And since they offer a different curriculum, they have to be independent.
How to apply to a Voluntary Aided or Voluntary Controlled School
For starters, always check the admissions policy of the school on the website. In many cases, admissions are administered by the school and not the local education authority. But application is often necessary to the school and the education authority, using different forms.
Of course, admissions priority on religious grounds is given to those who can prove their faith. And proof is a baptism certificate or a letter from your place of worship stating your regular attendance.
What is the difference between religious character and religious ethos?
A school with religious character is formally linked to the faith, hence “faith school”. The “school of religious” character designation affords it some control over its admissions, curriculum, and governance.
In addition to the Ofsted/ISI inspection, all faith schools are subject to a “Section 48” inspection by the relevant faith authority. These inspections monitor the quality of collective worship and the religious curriculum. The main inspection authorities are;
- The local CofE diocese using the Framework for the Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS),
- The local Catholic diocese using the framework of the Catholic Education Service,
- The Jewish Studies Education Inspection Service, Pikuach,
- The Association of Muslim Schools (AMS),
- The Network of Sikh Organisations,
- The Krishna Avanti Trust, for Hindu schools.
All schools of religious character must have a religious ethos which in turn informs its education strategy. But a school does not have to be affiliated to a religion to have a religious ethos.
You see this more with independent schools, academies, and free schools. A school can claim to have a “Christian” ethos, but what that means varies wildly. Often, it’s just a lazy way of communicating that a school observes unspecified “traditional” British values, with carols in the local church lobbed in.
But it can be more than that. Some worry that they can be faith schools in disguise. Undue religious influence creeping into secular schools without the checks and balances of a faith school. Of the 89 free school applications outstanding in spring 2020, 21% were for religious schools. 12 for schools of religious character and seven for schools with a faith ethos.
Should you choose a church school for your child?
Choosing a church school on the basis of faith makes perfect sense, of course. But choosing a church school because you think faith makes for better exam results is misguided.
Do pupils at church schools perform better in exams? Yes, they do, because church schools are selective. And because parents of church school pupils are, on average, more supportive and ambitious.
Maybe it is better to choose a school using other parents as your selection criteria. It might widen the net.