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"Emotive" debate over faith schools is "overheated", warns think tank

With the current government’s support of school diversity, the debate around faith schools continues to rage.

To some, they are the institutions that employ a God-oriented ethos to achieve the best exam results and the most well-rounded pupils.

But to others they divide communities, exclude the poor and impose religious dogma on children.

Looking at this schism, the director of the Theos think tank, Elizabeth Oldfield, has made an appeal for calm: the debate around faith schools has become “overheated” she says. It has “become a proxy for the wider conversation over how we deal with religion in public life,” she told TES.

The “emotive issues” of children and school choice have created “an incredibly heady cocktail”, she said, masking wider debates about the role of religion and society.

In a new analysis of existing research into voluntary aided and voluntary-controlled faith schools, Ms Oldfield and her colleagues find that there is “little reason to think” they are socially divisive.

But the report does find that when these schools act as their own admission authorities “a degree of socio-economic ‘sorting’ can result”.

The report says schools should, therefore, do more “to ensure that applicants from less privileged backgrounds are fairly represented in the school’s intake.”

And because of a historic grounding in helping the poorest, schools should also “explore ways to maintain their religious character whilst broadening their selection basis.”

“If more and more schools waive their right to select by religion or reduce it we might then be able to move on with the debate,” said Ms Oldfield. In other words, faith schools will be better able to justify their existence if they are open to all.

The report also concludes that “the evidence that the higher academic attainment of faith schools is due to something other than pupil selection criteria is weak.” Schools, the report says, should move away from justifying the religious character of their school on the basis of exam results alone.

The report comes only months after it emerged education secretary Michael Gove is hoping to ramp up the involvement of the Church of England in the running of secular state schools.

In July, it emerged that Church of England schools will soon be able to take over the running of non-faith schools, as long as they preserve their non-faith character.

The move outraged anti-faith school campaigners - it looks like the debate may remain heated from some time. 

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