If you want to stir up a really nice, big juicy public argument you are going to need some emotive ingredients. Let's start with children. To that you could add education, and the difficulty of getting into good state schools, particularly for those who based in London. Finish with a hefty dose of religion and you're left with a very promising cocktail of indignation, offence and defensiveness: the faith schools debate.
This can make it pretty difficult for ordinary parents and children to get a handle on what's going on. Those on either side of the argument draw on research to back up their positions, congratulating themselves on an evidence-based approach. The only problem is that tends to be different kinds of research. Those who advocate faith schools draws on that which demonstrates good academic results, while on the other side of the debate faith school critics point to another set of research to back up claims they exacerbate social division.
Both sides, entrenched in their positions, are over claiming. We have brought together the relevant evidence in one place in a new summary and analysis of existing research, entitled "More than an educated guess: assessing the evidence on faith schools". It looks at some of the key questions around faith schools including: are faith schools divisive? Are faith schools elitist? And is there a faith schools effect? It shows that they are neither a silver bullet for academic attainment nor a strong driver of division or inequality. In so many ways, faith schools are just schools, and the debate around them unnecessarily overheated.
For instance, faith school critics have long maintained that they are exacerbating racial and ethnic divisions and harming social cohesion. This narrative dates from the Cantle Report on the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001 which implied that "self-segregated" schools were partly to blame. Occasionally this claim is pushed so far as to be absurd and distasteful, as in this recent National Secular Society article which links the Nairobi bombings to the British faith school system. Our review of the evidence showed there is little reason to be concerned about this, as the "schools with a religious character" (as they officially known) are at least as good at other schools at promoting cohesion, and possibly better.
On the other hand, concerns that faith schools which have control over their admissions policies are ending up with disproportionately better off students appear to have some basis. Faith schools often justify themselves by appealing to better academic results. But these results are likely linked to the effect of the selection policies on the pupil intake.
I think most people realise that the faith school landscape is massively diverse, complex and constantly shifting as legislation changes. They are enmeshed in a complex education system which suffers from a range of problems as it is. Speaking about them as a monolithic block is misleading. Even more misleading are the kind of assertions that changes in legislation around them would be a magic fix for the problem of pressures on oversubscribed schools, social cohesion or as in the case above, extremism.
Often then the debate about faith schools is about much more, about how we build shared spaces where we can be ourselves without creating conflict, about freedom of parents to choose which schools their children go to, about minority religious communities maintaining a sense of self (and this is still relevant for even Catholic communities), about an inbuilt sense of unfairness around admissions, about our fear of militant Islamism. It is fundamentally about the fact that were anxious about our increasing difference. Playing out all those conversations on the platform of faith schools distorts them, oversimplifying set of complex issues. For the sake of parents, teachers, children and really all of us, let's try and be a bit more honest about that.