Religious background is more important than a faith school education for academic success, new study finds ShareThis


Faith schools - prayingThe academic advantages associated with a faith school education are short lived, and are mainly explained by home background, new research shows.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Education analysed data on more than 10,000 people born in England and Wales in a single week in 1970, who are taking part in the 1970 British Cohort Study.

The research looked at whether faith schools, across both the state and private sectors, gave an academic advantage to their pupils at O level, A level, and at university. After taking into account childhood cognitive scores, social background and religious upbringing, as well as school sector (private, comprehensive, grammar or secondary modern), the researchers found that a faith school education was only associated with better academic results in the short term.

At O level, even after taking religious background into account, pupils from Church of England (C of E) and Catholic schools had a small advantage over their peers from non-faith schools, amounting to about a third of an O level on average. However, at A level and degree level, there did not appear to be any academic benefits of a faith school education compared to peers who had a religious upbringing and other similar characteristics, but did not go to a faith school.

Professor Alice Sullivan, the study’s lead author, said: “Pupils who were raised in religious homes were more likely to succeed academically than those from non-religious backgrounds, whether they went to faith schools or not, and any small academic advantage that could be due to faith schools themselves was short lived. The much-vaunted ‘Catholic school effect’ was mostly explained by the fact that Catholic school pupils were usually from Catholic homes.

“We can speculate that the academic advantage of a religious upbringing at home may be due to cultural differences, such as differences in parenting practices and attitudes to education, as well as to religious belief or practice itself.  For example British Catholics at this time were often of Irish or European origin, bringing different cultural norms to those raised in other faiths, or none.”

Faith schools were of course disproportionately attended by children of the relevant faith background. In the C of E schools attended by children in the study, half of the pupils had an Anglican upbringing, 20 per cent were ‘other Christian’, 19 per cent were raised with no faith, 9 per cent were Catholic, and 3 per cent were of other faiths. The majority of children who attended Catholic schools were raised Catholic (73%), 10 per cent were brought up Anglican, 7 per cent had no faith upbringing, 7 per cent were ‘other Christian’, and the remaining 2 per cent were raised in other religions.

In the state school sector at the time of the study, 14-16 per cent of secondary schools were faith schools, compared to 24 per cent in the private sector. Pupils attending C of E schools tended to be more advantaged than their non-faith school peers. However, Catholic school pupils were generally less well-off than those who went to non-faith schools.

“From a policy perspective, it is natural to ask what these findings mean for parents and their children today,” said Professor Sullivan. “When parents make decisions about their children’s schooling they naturally compare schools based on their performance. Past studies have claimed an advantage for faith schools, without accounting for the religious background of the pupils. This study suggests that that is a mistake, which may lead to parents over-estimating the advantages of faith schools.

“While objections to faith schooling usually focus on the barriers they may place in the way of social interaction between groups and social cohesion, the arguments in their favour often relate, at least in part, to improved academic results. The findings presented here provide a new insight into the academic effectiveness of faith schools, and therefore have an ongoing relevance to contemporary education policy debates.”

Further information

‘Educational attainment in the short and long term: was there an advantage to attending faith, private and selective schools for pupils in the 1980s?’ By Professor Alice Sullivan, Dr Samantha Parsons, Professor Francis Green, Professor R.D. Wiggins, Professor George Ploubidis and Mr Timmy Huynh is published online by the Oxford Review of Education.

For further information please contact:

Ryan Bradshaw – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6516

Meghan Rainsberry – UCL Institute of Education
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight further surveys of all cohort members at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. The age 46 survey is currently underway. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Department of Social Science, UCL Institute of Education. Further information is available at
  2. Lead author, Alice Sullivan is Professor of Sociology at the UCL Institute of Education and the director of BCS70.
  3. BCS70 members in Scotland were excluded from this research as Scotland’s system of school qualifications differs from that in England and Wales.
  4. Study members were asked whether they were ‘raised according to any particular religion, and if so, which one’ in the age 42 survey.
  5. No information was available on the extent of religious practices within schools beyond the faith categories listed. Non-faith schooling does not imply a complete absence of religious influence, and all state schools were required to conduct collective acts of worship and to provide religious instruction.
  6. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) is a resource centre based at the UCL Institute of Education. Professor Francis Green, of the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies (LLAKES) is a partner in the Schooling and unequal outcomes in youth and adulthood research project
  7. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 QS World University Rankings.  It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016.  In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes.  In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff.  In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education.
  8. UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion. | Follow us on Twitter @uclnews | Watch our YouTube channel
  9. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.