The correlation fallacy of faith schools and their ‘better results’.

The correlation fallacy of faith schools and their ‘better results’. June 19, 2014

Just thought I’d repost this in response to the recent schools fiasco in the UK, and since Terry Sanderson is saying similar things..,

I have often argued about (state-funded) faith schools in the UK, and whether their above-average exam results are used in repeated examples of the correlation fallacy.

Well, it seems they are.

The reality (and having worked in some, I should know) is that the sorts of parents who want their children to do well have high aspirations. Let’s call them HAPs (High Aspiration Parents). HAPs will do things for their children to further their education, both in and pout of school. HAPs will support their children by teaching them to read early, by setting high standards and expectations for their children and so on.

Faith schools have a reputation for better discipline and results. This is a virtuous circle. The school which is deemed better, get HAPs applying for it. The HAP children have higher chance of achieving (and there is a genetic component here too) and they have parents who are more likely to try their hardest to get their children into the ‘best school’. Thus faith schools often have a skewed admission since they are being selected by more conscientious parents with higher expectations for their children.

Then Christians, diocesan education boards, religious marketing institutions and other believers get hold of the higher results and laud faith schools for producing better educated children when it is actually the parental contributions which cause this.

Here is a Guardian article  which shows this to be the case:

Church schools shun poorest pupils

Most Catholic and Church of England school have a higher proportion of middle-class children than the local population


England’s faith state schools are failing to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area, analysis by the Guardian of the latest government figures shows.

st john's primary school in croydon.
St John’s Church of England primary school in Croydon, south London, has 7% of pupils eligible for free meals. The proportion in the borough is 24%. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

The Roman Catholic church, which has repeatedly insisted its schools are inclusive, comes out particularly badly in the examination of data published by the Department for Education (DfE) last month and in December. Three-quarters of Catholic primary and secondary schools have a more affluent mix of pupils than their local area.

The figures also reveal that most Church of England (CofE) primary schools have an intake that is untypically affluent and more middle-class than a year ago. The findings will fuel claims that faith schools have been picking pupils from well-off families by selecting on the basis of religion.

The Guardian analysed the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals – a key indicator of poverty – in each of England’s 19,534 state, non-selective primary and secondary schools. All schools designated for children with special needs were taken out.

The schools have been grouped according to whether they are affiliated to the CofE, the Catholic church or have no religious character. The number of state-funded Muslim and Jewish schools is too small to form a meaningful group – however, the 11 state-funded Muslim schools in England are collectively more reflective of their community, with 67% of primaries and 60% of secondaries having more than the local authority average of free school meal pupils. The 36 Jewish state schools on average have less representation of pupils on free school meals than their local area. There are many Christian schools connected to other denominations, but the data does not specify which denomination.

The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in each CofE, Catholic or non-religious school was compared with the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals in their local authority and among all the comparable schools in the same postcode area.

It is well-known that the average proportion of deprived pupils in faith schools is lower than it is for all schools in England. However, it has not until now been clear whether this is a facet of the areas they serve. Our analysis shows for the first time the extent to which faith and non-faith schools reflect – or fail to reflect – the proportion of poor pupils in their area.

The vast majority of Catholic primary and secondary schools fail to mirror the proportion of poor pupils living in their community, the data reveals. The Catholic church has fought successful battles to retain control of admissions to its schools.

Some 73% of Catholic primaries and 72% of Catholic secondaries have a lower proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than the average for the local authority.

It is the same for CofE primary and secondary schools. Some 74% of these primaries and 65.5% of secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is average for the local authority.

In contrast, non-religious schools tend to reflect their neighbourhoods. Half (51%) of non-religious primaries and 45% of non-religious secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative for their local authority.

Faith schools fared no better when examined at a more local level. We compared the proportion of poor pupils in each postcode with the proportion of poor pupils in faith schools and non-faith schools studying in that postcode. The data shows 76% of Catholic primaries and 65% of Catholic secondaries have a smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative of their postcode. This is the case for 63.5% of CofE primaries and 40% of CofE secondaries.

Non-religious primaries and secondaries are far more likely to mirror the proportion of poor pupils in their postcode – just 47% of non-faith primaries and 29% of non-faith secondaries take a smaller proportion of free school meals than is representative for their postcode.

Anna Vignoles, a professor of the economics of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said the Guardian’s findings could be explained by the fact that faith schools draw their pupils from their faith communities, which are not necessarily located in the same postcode or area as their school.

A study by Dr Rebecca Allen and Professor Anne West of the Institute of Education and the London School of Economics, published in 2011, showed that middle class parents are more likely to apply to faith schools – and that the admissions procedures there are easier for them to navigate.

Our data also shows that CofE primary schools are increasingly serving the better-heeled in their communities.

Whereas this year 74% of the church’s primaries have a smaller proportion of the poorest pupils than their local authority, the year before 72% did.

At a more local level, the same is the case. This year, 63.5% of the church’s primaries have a smaller proportion of the poorest pupils than their postcode, compared to 60% last year.

Maeve McCormack, policy manager at the Catholic Education Service, said Catholic schools appeared not to reflect their communities in our data because their catchment areas were geographically wider than the postcode or local authority where the schools were situated.

She said separate figures from the DfE showed 18.6% of pupils at Catholic primary schools live in the 10% most deprived areas of England, compared with only 14.3% of primary school pupils nationally. Some 17% of pupils at Catholic schools lived in the 10% most deprived areas compared to 12% of pupils nationally.

The DfE calculates the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals based on how many families apply for this benefit. McCormack said that because there was a “cultural stigma” attached to claiming free school meals, fewer than the expected number of pupils were reported to be on the benefit.

A spokesman for the CofE said local authorities controlled the admissions of more than half its schools. The church rejected the idea that those schools that controlled their own admissions were failing to mirror their local communities.

“The current government agenda to narrow the differential attainment between groups was the priority of the founders of church school education 200 years ago, when providing a basic education for the poor was not seen as a state responsibility,” the spokesman said.

“This remains the driver for all that we continue to do today. That is why the church is the largest sponsor of academies, mostly in deprived areas where the schools had a history of under-performance.

“These academies have opened up new opportunities and new life chances for nearly 45,000 young people, all living in disadvantaged areas – a clear example of the outworking of the church’s mission in education.”

Richy Thompson from the British Humanist Association said the data gave “further cause for concern that allowing religious discrimination within our state system exacerbates socioeconomic inequality as well as being religiously and ethnically divisive”.

He said: “We urge the government to end faith-based selection in all state-funded schools.”

Our analysis found some particularly egregious examples of schools – both Catholic and CofE – that take far fewer numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals than is representative of their area.

In St John’s Church of England primary in Croydon, south London, just 7% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 29% across the postcode and 24% across the local authority.

Meanwhile, at St James’s Catholic primary school in Richmond, south-west London, only 1% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 10% across the postcode and local authority.

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  • Of course. This is why we send our children to faith schools, and we eschew the local state school. Faith schools are more successful, because they attract the children of aspirational parents. I would rather my child sat next to the child of an aspirational parent than one who does not value education as highly. The success of faith schools also depends upon their ability to attract and retain better teachers.  The higher proportion of pupils from aspirational families help to create a more pleasant working environment, which means that teaching jobs in these schools are of a premium. This is not a reason for scrapping Church of England schools. They are establishments that middle class parents seek out; it is, if you like, part of their culture. And why should it not be?
    If Church of England schools were to be scrapped, the only thing that would happen would be that the children of some of the aspirational parents would be disadvantaged. Parents who could afford fees for independent schools would send their children there, whilst others would retreat to rural areas, where the house prices would lead to a greater concentration of middle class children, which would naturally still attract the best teachers. The rest, a small group of children, would invariably be flung in with the children of lower aspirational parents. This would not be a tide to raise all ships, but rather would serve to drag down, and impede the children of hardworking, but poor, parents of high aspiration. Again, as with the closure of the grammar schools, the liberal elite serves only to beat down those not fortunate enough to dodge their ideological juggernaut.

    • Justin – 
      They are not, though, good because of their faith, agreed?

      Your point about teachers is an interesting one.

      “the only thing that would happen would be that the children of some of the aspirational parents would be disadvantaged.”
      the only thing that would happen would be that the children of some of the non-aspirational parents would be ADVANTAGED (thus breaking them out of the vicious circle of low aspiration).


  • No, well that’s my very point. A great deal of parents would, by hook or by crook, bail. They’d fill the village schools, and they’d fill private schools. A slight number would remain to fight it out, scarcely enough to make the impact that you would hope. 
    And besides, what you’re basically saying is that, once the better well-off parents have bailed, it will be the duty of lower-middle class parents to raise the quality of the education of the children of their less aspirational neighbours’ children. Why? Who says that families with a yearly income of less than £60,000 have to be the vanguard of standards for other peoples’ kids? What a burden to put on them, especially seeing how it will not be shared by others. Those with the money to exercise their right to choose will do so, in your world. The ones who cannot afford it will be made to carry the can.
    I can’t imagine that a daily prayer service makes a difference to education, but that doesn’t mean that the schools should be scrapped. They work exceptionally well, for whatever reason. In that case, the only reason to close them must be ideological, and that’s a very poor reason for making any sort of decision where children and education are concerned.

    • Is this not elitism? One sets up a system which benefits the more well-off and fortunate in society?

      • Is there a problem with that? There are some that work, and there are those that don’t. There are some who, by dint of some genetic accident, are more clever than others. Some have more pleasing and handsome features than others. Some are raised to be prudent and thrifty, whilst others are reckless with their money. Some are born into socio-economic backgrounds that impede their progress, and some are born of wealthy families. These factors cause people to raise themselves, or maintain themselves in society. They are also factors that cause people to fall, or remain on the lower rungs. For better or worse, these are the facts of life, and placing obstacles before some people, simply because one believes that these facts ought not to be facts is like calling for a putative tax on umbrellas because it’s not fair that some people have to stand out in the rain. Some people will continue to buy umbrellas, thank you very much. The rest (those same people who would suffer under your widespread egalitarian downsizing in education) will just have to reconcile themselves to getting wet. 
        By all means, to continue the analogy, use taxation and incentives to ensure that as many people as possible are sheltered from the rain, but don’t imagine that the cause of this nation, or indeed humanity will be advanced by placing bars upon the choices of aspirational parents. They are good people. They want the best for their children, and they play the field before them, not some ideological cloud-cuckoo land.

  • Skeptic_Dave

    Surely, aspirational parents will find a way to ‘work’ whatever system exists, so I see no reason to retain this particular lifeline to aspirational parents even if one accepts your argument. 
    I am totally against any organisation that attempts to indoctrinate children with bronze-age BS being allowed to play a part in state-funded education. Children should have a right to be taught facts, or be offered sensible appraisals of conflicting belief systems so they can choose between them or reserve judgement.

    • You see that, @facebook-617290610:disqus ? That’s the voice of reason…

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