Little faith in better results
Children make no more progress at church schools than at ordinary comprehensives, researchers have found.
An analysis of 3,044 schools' results found that those with a religious character added no more value to a child's education than other schools in the state sector.
The findings, by Ian and Sandie Schagen, from the National Foundation for Educational Research, are set to fuel the belief that church schools achieve good GCSEs only by choosing the best pupils.
Faith groups have long denied such claims and say their schools' strong academic record is down to a religious ethos. The study, published in the British Educational Research Journal this month, compares the value-added scores of faith, specialist and grammar schools with "ordinary" comprehensives. Scores were weighted to take account of factors, such as the number of pupils on free meals.
The researchers said grammar schools generally added the most value between key stage 2 and GCSE, saying that "borderline pupils - those who narrowly obtain a grammar place - obtain much better GCSE results".
The top 10 positions in recent key stage 3 value-added tables were dominated by grammar schools. Dr Challoner's grammar, Buckinghamshire, topped the list with a progress measure of 104.3 compared to the national average of about 100. For each point above or below 100 the children make a term's more or less progress than the average for their ages.
Specialist schools performed better than average on the same value-added scale, although they lagged well behind grammars, but there was no difference between church schools and the average state secondary. "On the whole, faith schools seem to make very little impact," says the study.
More than 500,000 of the country's 2.8 million secondary pupils are educated in church secondary schools. Researchers conceded that faith schools outperform secular neighbours in two key areas: the number of GCSEs being taken by pupils and the total points score for the school.
On average, each pupil at a faith school scores one more GCSE point than those at other comprehensives. However, the study said this may be down to RE being compulsory in faith schools, often meaning as an additional GCSE.
But on the value-added scale, researchers said: "There was no significant impact - which places a question mark against claims that increasing the number of specialist or faith schools is likely to contribute to raising attainment."
Their comments follow claims by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator that the only reason faith schools often out-perform comprehensives is because of "their practice of selecting from church-going families".
A study last year by Paul Croll, of Reading university, concluded that children from church-going families often outperform those who never attend.
Professor Croll said there was a direct correlation between a pupil's academic success and a parent's willingness to take part in events outside the home, including voluntary groups and church.
"Young people who have a parent who is a member of three or more organisations achieve nearly twice as many good GCSE passes," he said.
He added: "Attendance at religious services also has a positive relationship with GCSE results, and young people who have a parent who is a weekly attender have the highest average GCSE score."
The Church of England is commissioning its own research into the academic performance of its schools.