What is a faith school?

Primary-school pupils
They’re some of the best-performing schools in the UK, but faith schools have many opponents. We take a look at the faith school system and how it works.
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Faith schools are a contentious subject among parents and politicians alike. Their supporters argue that it’s right for followers of certain religions to have their children educated in line with the principles of their faith, but others feel that the faith school system is divisive, unfair and even dangerous. Many of the UK’s faith schools are renowned for their good results, and as a result are heavily oversubscribed.

How might going to a faith school affect your child’s education?

Faith schools: the big picture

Faith schools make up a significant chunk of the state primary school sector in England. As of September 2014, there were 6,210 state-funded faith primary schools, making up 37 per cent of the total number of primary schools. This included:

  • 4,395 Church of England schools
  • 1,661 Roman Catholic schools
  • 36 Jewish schools
  • 9 Muslim schools
  • 5 Sikh schools

In total, over a quarter of all primary-school pupils are educated in a faith school.

In Wales, 239 primary schools out of 1,544 are faith schools, while in Scotland 370 of the 2,569 primaries have a religious affiliation.

In addition, there are a large number of independent schools with a religious ethos.

How faith schools work

State-funded faith schools are usually voluntary aided (VA) or voluntary controlled (VC) schools. This means that they get some of their funding from a religious organisation, which also usually owns the school buildings and the land. A certain number of the school’s governors must be foundation governors (governors appointed by the school’s faith authority to represent its religious ethos).

State faith schools are run similarly to other maintained schools, although often, the governing body rather than the local authority is responsible for matters such as deciding the admissions policy and appointing staff. This may, for example, mean that they look for teachers and support staff who practise the school’s religion when recruiting.

Faith schools have to follow the National Curriculum in all subjects. However, in Religious Education lessons, they are free to only teach children about their own religion, although many will also teach them about other faiths.

Like other state schools, faith schools are inspected regularly by Ofsted. Most are also inspected by a religious body, with the inspection focusing in particular on the impact of the school’s faith ethos.

Applying for a place at a faith school

The admissions policy for VA and VC faith schools is set and administered by the school’s governing body. Typically, priority is given to children whose families have some sort of affiliation with the school’s faith. For example, places might be allocated in the first place to:

  • Children who are baptised in the religion
  • Children whose families regularly attend specified places of worship

Usually, faith schools require you not just to apply for a place through the local authority admissions system, but also to apply direct to the school using a Supplementary Information Form, available from the school office. If you’re applying for a place on religious grounds, you’ll usually be asked for proof – such as your child’s baptism certificate, or a letter from the religious leader certifying your attendance.

Because admissions policies vary from school to school, you should contact faith schools directly to find out how they allocate their places and what information they need.

Faith school advantages

The obvious benefit of faith schools is that their teaching, across all subjects, is in line with the faith’s ethos – a big priority for people who have a strong desire for their child to have a solid religious grounding. In Jewish schools, for example, children learn to read Hebrew, and celebrate events in the Jewish calendar rather than the Christian calendar.

Faith schools also tend to be among the best-performing state schools. For example, children in Roman Catholic schools outperform the national average KS2 SATs scores by five per cent; 84 per cent of C of E schools have an Ofsted Good or Outstanding rating, three per cent higher than average; and Jewish schools often appear near the top of league tables.

The drawbacks of faith schools

Much of the debate around faith schools centres on the fairness – or otherwise – of the admissions system. In particular, C of E schools have been widely criticised for prioritising children whose families worship at a designated church, sometimes as little as once a month for a year. This has led to people going to church simply to gain a place, to the detriment of other children who live nearer the school, or who live further away but come from genuinely religious families. To this end, many C of E schools have removed any sort of faith criteria from their admissions policy in the interest of fairness.

The Fair Admissions Campaign also claims that many faith schools are failing to follow the School Admissions Code. For example, two Jewish schools were found to require membership of a synagogue, which costs money, while other schools expected families to be providing practical support to the religious organisation, through activities such as choir singing or flower arranging.

In addition, there have been high profile cases linking certain faith schools with extremism, although the Association of Muslim Schools says, ‘We take allegations of extremism very seriously and we would take action immediately.’ 

There are also fears that separating children by their faith is divisive, and undermines inclusion and diversity within society as a whole. However, both the C of E and the Roman Catholic church point out that their schools provide education for all children, and that significant numbers of pupils – 30 per cent, in the case of Catholic schools – are of other faiths or none.