Faith schools better for community cohesion
A new study commissioned by the Church of England has concluded that secondary schools with a strong religious ethos are better at helping establish community relations than non-religious schools.
The research, conducted by Professor David Jesson at the University of York, used data from Ofsted reports for 400 secondary institutions and found faith schools were rated higher on average by the watchdog for their efforts to promote community cohesion.
Professor Jesson says at primary level, faith schools were rated the same as non-religious schools. But among the secondary schools surveyed, faith schools were rated higher. Of the 74 secondary faith schools surveyed, 24 (32%) were rated "outstanding" at community relations. Of the 337 non-faith secondaries analysed - 55 (16%) were given the same grade.
In his report, Professor Jesson said there was clear evidence that faith schools were awarded substantially higher inspection gradings for promoting community cohesion than Community schools.
Prof Jesson said: "This finding runs completely counter to those who have argued that, because faith schools have a distinctive culture reflecting their faith orientation and are responsible for their admissions, they are 'divisive' and so contribute to greater segregation amongst their communities."
Prof Jesson also examined evidence from 700 primary institutions, but found no difference in community cohesion inspection ratings for religious and non-religious schools.
However, The Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive faith schools, said the criteria used by Ofsted to rate schools on community cohesion does not go far enough. The Coalition says inspectors should consider admissions policies and the religious education curriculum of faith schools.
Its chairman Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain told the BBC: "Building community cohesion is vitally important and we congratulate all those schools that have been working hard to meet the duty," he said.
"The most pressing issue is whether the criteria used by Ofsted are sufficient.
"While school linking projects and classroom discussions of diversity are commendable, inspectors should also consider the impact on cohesion of discriminatory admissions and biased RE lessons.
"Occasional meetings with other groups have little merit if the children move in closeted circles most of the time and do not receive a broad education in class."
Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: "The problem with cohesion lies primarily with minority faith schools.
"The very existence of minority faith schools is a major impediment to cohesion, especially where members tend also to be from ethnic and cultural minorities.
"Such schools tend to be mono-religious, mono-ethnic and mono-cultural, quite often of children from communities that are already separate from mainstream society."
In 2006, Labour attempted to introduce rules forcing all faith schools to admit at least a quarter of pupils from other religions or atheist backgrounds, but the move was dropped following a huge outcry from Roman Catholics.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families published guidance detailing schools' role in promoting community cohesion in the Children's Plan of December 2007.
Under legislation, all schools have a duty to promote “community cohesion” and citizenship. It includes a requirement to teach about British identity, the traditions of all major faiths and individual rights and responsibilities, coupled with a drive to ease community tensions. Ofsted is tasked with ensuring schools create an action plan focusing on minority groups outside the school and different races or religions in the classroom.
Faith schools, when they are oversubscribed, can use religion when allocating places along with other factors such as distance, aptitude or whether siblings already attend. 25% of places can be reserved in this way.
A spokesman for the Department for Children Schools and Families said: "We know that many faith schools have been working very hard to promote community cohesion through programmes such as 'Faith in the System' which encourages schools from different faith groups to work closely together."
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