The academic advantages of a faith school education are short-lived and can be mainly explained by a pupil’s home background, according to research published today.
A study by the UCL Institute of Education found that pupils who attended Church of England and Catholic schools performed slightly better at O-level than their peers in non-faith schools.
However, at A level and degree, there did not appear to be any academic advantage in a faith school education compared to peers who had a religious upbringing but did not go to a faith school.
The findings were based on the results of more than 10,000 pupils born in a single week in 1970 who took part in the British Cohort Study that year.
The research looked at whether faith schools, across both the state and private sectors, gave an academic advantage to their pupils at O-level, A level, and at university.
After taking into account social background and religious upbringing, as well as school sector – private, comprehensive, grammar or secondary modern – the researchers found that a faith school education only demonstrated better academic results in the short term.
The benefit was said to be worth around a third of an O level.
Although the research relates to pupils' education three decades ago, Professor Alice Sullivan, the study’s lead author, said the findings were still relevant to the debate about faith schools today.
She said: “Pupils who were raised in religious homes were more likely to succeed academically than those from non-religious backgrounds, whether they went to faith schools or not, and any small academic advantage that could be due to faith schools themselves was short lived.
“The much-vaunted ‘Catholic school effect’ was mostly explained by the fact that Catholic school pupils were usually from Catholic homes.
“We can speculate that the academic advantage of a religious upbringing at home may be due to cultural differences, such as differences in parenting practices and attitudes to education, as well as to religious belief or practice itself."
The researchers said that faith schools were disproportionately attended by children of the relevant faith background.
In the CE schools attended by children in the study, half of the pupils had an Anglican upbringing, 20 per cent were ‘other Christian’, 19 per cent were raised with no faith, 9 per cent were Catholic, and 3 per cent were of other faiths. The majority of children who attended Catholic schools were raised as Catholics (73 per cent), 10 per cent were brought up as Anglicans, 7 per cent had no faith upbringing, another 7 per cent were ‘other Christian’, and the remaining 2 per cent were raised in other religions.
In the state school sector at the time of the study, 14-16 per cent of secondary schools were faith schools, compared to 24 per cent in the private sector.
Pupils attending CE schools tended to be more advantaged than their non-faith school peers.
However, Catholic school pupils were generally less well-off than those who went to non-faith schools.
Prof Sullivan added: “From a policy perspective, it is natural to ask what these findings mean for parents and their children today.
"When parents make decisions about their children’s schooling they naturally compare schools based on their performance.
"Past studies have claimed an advantage for faith schools, without accounting for the religious background of the pupils. This study suggests that that is a mistake, which may lead to parents over-estimating the advantages of faith schools.
“While objections to faith schooling usually focus on the barriers they may place in the way of social interaction between groups and social cohesion, the arguments in their favour often relate, at least in part, to improved academic results.”