30 September 2013 14:49

Most people polled in a new survey disapprove of state funding for faith schools but most participants did not object to faith schools discriminating on religious grounds.

The survey, designed by Lancaster University’s Professor of the Sociology of Religion Linda Woodhead, was carried out online this summer by YouGov and polled 4018 people.

Professor Woodhead saw the survey as backing for the continuation of faith schools.

“So long as parents want their children to get the best qualifications, so long as politicians of left and right support parental choice and high academic standards and, so long as faith schools maintain these standards, the debate can rage, but faith schools are not going away,” she said.

Other survey findings include:

  • Young people are more positive about faith schools and funding than older people
  • Only a quarter of people who might have a school-age child say they would send him/her to a faith school
  • Academic standards matter most in choosing a school rather than values or religion
  • Social class, gender, and political preference make little difference to opinion

The survey was undertaken for the Westminster Faith Debates, the highly acclaimed religion and public life debates between academics and leading public figures which Professor Woodhead and former Government Minister and Lancaster University Visiting Professor in Politics and Faith Charles Clarke organise every spring.

Professor Woodhead says the survey provides a reality check for both sides in the debate about faith schools but offers little comfort for either those who defend or those who oppose faith schools.

“In abstract debates about faith schools people talk about religion,” says Professor Woodhead. “Secular activists oppose faith schools on grounds of religious indoctrination and discrimination, while religious people support them because of the faith element. 

“But our poll shows that when choosing a school most parents aren’t concerned with religion. They are concerned with academic standards. ”

Commenting further on the survey, Professor Woodhead said that although age had an effect on attitudes, overall strength of belief in God was the strongest factor. 

People who were certain there was a God were more than three times more likely to support funding for faith schools than atheists and, although each group was a minority in society, they probably helped fuel debate about faith schools, she added.

In relation to attitudes towards non-Christian faith schools, being insular or ‘little England’ rather than cosmopolitan in outlook was the next strongest factor. Under 30s with a cosmopolitan outlook were more than twice as likely to be supportive of faith schools as over 30s with an insular outlook.

State-supported ‘faith schools’ (schools with a particular religious character) make up around a third of schools in England and Wales (Scotland has a different system, with state-funded schools being either non-denominational or Roman Catholic).

Most faith schools in Britain are church schools (e.g. Church of England, Roman Catholic) and the rest (around 1%) are non-Christian (e.g. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu). 

Many ‘faith schools’ (notably  Church of England voluntary controlled schools) are not, in practice, significantly different from non-faith schools.

Under the Coalition Government the number of Academies and Free Schools in England has expanded rapidly, and some of these are faith schools.

The figures in the survey have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).  Northern Ireland is not included.

A new series of the Westminster Faith Debates will be held in Spring 2014.