Tuesday, 6 March 2012

New research suggests religious schools favour middle class families

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New research by the Guardian has shown that religious schools in England accept fewer children from low-income families than the non-religious schools in the same local area. The charge that faith schools favour middle-class families has long been disputed by both the Catholic and Anglican churches, but the Guardian's findings support the arguments of those campaigning to end the proliferation of state-funded religious schools.

Using data published by the Department for Education, the newspaper analysed the number of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) in every non-selective primary and secondary school in the country (19,534 schools in total), and found that Catholic and Church of England schools have a smaller proportion of pupils claiming free meals than non-religious schools.

This in itself is not a surprise – it has long been known that the national proportion of pupils from impoverished backgrounds is lower in faith schools, but it is often claimed that this is because faith schools tend to be located in better-off areas. However, the Guardian have tested this claim by examining schools in comparison to other schools in their area, and revealed that faith schools, on average, have a lower proportion of pupils claiming free meals than their local, non-religious counterparts.

The Guardian compared schools to others in the same local authority and, on an even more localised scale, in the same postcode, and the results were as follows (source: BHA website):
  • For Catholic schools, 73% of primaries and 72% of secondaries take fewer pupils eligible for FSM than the average in their local authority (LA); 76% of primaries and 65% of secondaries take fewer pupils than the average in their post code.
  • For Church of England schools, 74% of primaries and 65.5% of secondaries take fewer pupils eligible for FSM than the average in their local authority (LA); 63.5% of primaries and 40% of secondaries take fewer pupils than the average in their post code.
  • On the other hand, for schools without a religious character, 51% of primaries and 45% of secondaries take fewer pupils eligible for FSM than the average in their local authority (LA); while 47% of primaries and 29% of secondaries take fewer pupils than the average in their post code.
You can see a more detailed explanation of the research on the Guardian website.

As to why this happens, one explanation could of course be that church schools actively favour children from wealthier backgrounds. This is something that both the Catholic and Anglican churches strenuously deny and, in responding to the Guardian research, both argue that there are other statistics that demonstrate their commitment to serving poorer communities. A Church of England spokesperson points out that the "church is the largest sponsor of academies, mostly in deprived areas where the schools had a history of under-performance", while the Catholic representative argues that the Guardian's figures misrepresent the demographics of Catholic schools:
"Maeve McCormack, policy manager at the Catholic Education Service, said Catholic schools appeared not to reflect their communities in our data because their catchment areas were geographically wider than the postcode or local authority where the schools were situated.

She said separate figures from the DfE showed 18.6% of pupils at Catholic primary schools live in the 10% most deprived areas of England, compared with only 14.3% of primary school pupils nationally. Some 17% of pupils at Catholic schools lived in the 10% most deprived areas compared to 12% of pupils nationally."
Another explanation is that success at a church school leads to a large number of middle-class families, who are better-placed than poorer families to put in the effort required to meet church school admissions criteria, attempting to get their children into the school. The Guardian's Andrew Brown calls this "the self-sustaining Darwinian world of modern education", and it is explained in a straightforward manner in the British Humanist Association's report on the research:
"It is simplest to explain this by using an example. Let’s say there are two schools in a town – one an inclusive community school, and one a religiously selective ‘faith’ school. Let’s say, for whatever reason, the ‘faith’ school performs slightly better (as one would expect it to some of the time).

It then follows that for many parents, it becomes more desirable to get their children into the ‘faith’ school. And more ambitious parents, typically from wealthier backgrounds, are likely to work harder to manipulate the system – for example, by attending church when they otherwise wouldn’t – to get their children into the stronger school. In other words, the selection process itself cuts out the pupils from the poorest backgrounds; and so the school ends up with more parents who will push their children to perform better; and so the school performs even stronger than its neighbours; and so the cycle perpetuates."
While I think the most crucial problem with faith schools concerns their exclusivity and potential for segregating communities, I often think the way in which they encourage this bizarre scramble for places, where parents drag themselves to church on Sunday and pretend to be religious in order to get their child a place at a good school, provides the simplest argument against them. The school someone attends can be one of the most important decisions made for them during their childhood, yet this is one of the key ways in which that decision is made in this country. How can anyone think that this is sensible or fair?

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