The Superior Educational Attainments of Pupils in Religious Foundation Schools in England

By Prais, S. J. | National Institute Economic Review, July 2005 | Go to article overview

The Superior Educational Attainments of Pupils in Religious Foundation Schools in England


Prais, S. J., National Institute Economic Review


Pupils of religious foundation schools in England show superior educational performance over general (Local Education Authority) schools, the advantage having been estimated in previous studies at learning about a tenth faster for the average pupil by the age of leaving primary schooling (age 11+). In this study access to individual pupils' scores at SAT tests shows that the advantage of religious foundation schools is particularly great for lower-attaining pupils, with only the lowest tenth of those in religious schools attaining the scores of the lowest third in general schools.

Keywords: schooling attainments; religious schools; SATs JEL classification: 121, 128

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It has been thought for some time that pupils at schools affiliated to a religious foundation perform better, in broad terms, in national educational tests than pupils at general schools (which, in England, means that great majority of schools sponsored by Local Education Authorities). An evaluation, in quantitative terms, of that advantage would benefit (a) parents choosing schools for their children; (b) educational authorities deciding which kinds of new schools need to be established; (c) research educationists concerned with elucidating aspects of school organisation and of teaching which contribute to success in learning.

School-averages in the US and England

Research interest in this topic was much stimulated a generation ago by a large US sample study of schools and pupils into factors contributing to inequality of educational opportunity--a study carried out by the respected professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, James S. Coleman. This was followed by studies focussing more specifically on differential achievements in religious and private schools showing, for example, that pupils at Catholic schools gained--by school-leaving age--about one 'grade-level' over general schools 'in mathematics, vocabulary and reading comprehension'; in other words, they gained about one year's learning in a total of ten years' schooling--an advantage of about 10 per cent. (1)

A similar proportionate advantage has been noted for pupils in England who are all obliged to take the nationwide compulsory SAT tests, as documented by Dr John Marks (in Burns et al., 2001) in relation to SAT results for 1998. For example, in mathematics at age 11, pupils at religious foundation primary schools in England (CE and RC schools combined) attained scores in Key Stage 2 tests putting them at the equivalent of 5.2 months of schooling ahead of pupils in general LEA schools; tests for English showed a closely similar advantage of 5.8 months (Burn et al., 2001, p. 9). In effect, pupils at religious foundation primary schools had gained the equivalent of about one month's learning for each year of primary schooling over pupils at general schools. At a younger phase of their schooling, at age 7 when they took Key Stage 1 tests, pupils at religious foundation schools were 3.4 months ahead in mathematics and 3.7 months in English; their greater pace of learning thus seems to have been fairly consistent throughout primary schooling. As Dr Marks has also shown, a substantial advantage for religious foundation schools is to be found at the subsequent secondary schooling stage--though once achievement is measured in terms of GCSE and A-level passes at various grades--it is not so easy to translate into equivalent years of schooling gained.

A more detailed study of English secondary school results, based on 'value-added' at GCSE tests in 2000, came to an apparently much more reserved conclusion: 'On the whole, it seems that church schools--whether C of E, RC or 'other Christian'--outperform non-religious schools on some (i.e. not on all: SJP) measures, but only to a very slight degree' (Schagen et al., 2002, p. 34). Even that was qualified because many of the various measures of schooling success were based on numbers of school-subjects passed at GCSE, and religious foundation schools more often required pupils to take Religious Education as an additional GCSE subject. …

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