School league tables, Faith, fairytales, parents and Bowie

The Birmingham Mail published a Good Primary School Guide this week ( based on a combination of 42 pieces of data. As is the case with every school league table I have ever studied, faith schools do disproportionately well. This blog is an attempt to consider why. 

The factors that contribute to interpretations of education data are varied and complex. Using the data to draw simple conclusions leads to inaccurate understanding.  Having acknowledged that complexity, the disproportionate appearance of faith schools (and particularly Catholic schools)  at the top of league tables of state schools over the last twenty years provides a pattern worth considering. Any study of the pattern needs to be placed in the context of the success of primary education overall in the last twenty years. There is no evidence that faith schools have a higher percentage of outstanding teachers than other schools. OfSTED reports would suggest that high quality teaching is found in all types of school including institutions towards the bottom end of league tables. Putting it crudely, being Catholic does not make a person a better teacher (nor a more receptive pupil). 

The allegation that Catholic schools admission policies make the institutions socially exclusive and therefore provide an advantage in crude data does not stand up to scrutiny especially at primary level where nationally the intake is poorer. 

If parents are the most important factor in pupil attainment ( the complex issues of parenting and parent school relationships need to be considered.  Passing on a set of values that are part of your identity can be a profound learning experience for both parent and child. In previous generations, group identity was stronger due to lower mobility and less technology. Harari claims that the ability of homo sapiens to create meaning through myth, fiction and gossip strengthened group identity and explains the success of the species (and extinction of the other sapiens species). In recent history,  as we become more global and use more technology, this transmission of meaning through myth has weakened. This diminishing of group identity and values is as a result of individual identity becoming more important because it offers more freedom (especially in a market economy).  David Bowie’s death led to many journalists reflecting on his use of multiple individual identities. Whilst Bowie did not invent the idea of switching personal identity and reinventing oneself, he captured the reality in his music and art before anyone else.  In that sense his work was prophetic in holding a mirror up to the post-war, post-industrial and increasingly globalised US and European societies.  Despite the significant changes in a society based on the individual consumer managing many identities in real or virtual worlds, some group identity lingers and one of these is faith. It is not surprising that group identity based on offering answers to ultimate questions has lasted longer than for example national, class or political identity. Faith identity is not constant, obviously varies by individual and is difficult to generalise from however it appears stronger in children and parents than any other group (other than the elderly who are contemplating their own demise).  The belief in a transcendent God (or Gods) driven by a reflection on what it is to create life can form a powerful bond between parent and child.  God is Love claimed St Augustine and there is no greater love than a parent’s for a child (as Voldemort finds to his cost in one of our most powerful modern myths). Schools whose foundation complements this view (although obviously this is a very small part of any belief system) and appear to transmit this belief to a child create a greater sense of consistency between institution and home, and security for the growing child.  As an illustration,  in 2003, Catholic schools did not need to change much to adopt the Every Child Matters agenda because it was already central to the shared understanding with parents and the post Vatican 2 Church.  Despite in some cases poverty and family breakdown, children were already taught the view that not only did they matter, in the state’s OfSTED enforced view, as individuals being prepared to play a role of consumer but more profoundly they had value through relationships with their parent, God and other people.  The ability of the schools to work with parents to transmit Christian values and group identity at a time of falling Church attendance may have helped preserve a depth of belonging from which children benefit and could therefore have contributed to a disproportionate number of faith schools at the top of league tables over a sustained period of time. 

A minority of pupils in Catholic primary schools attend Church.  At a time when pressured parents multitask in the home or provide transport for their children, shared time is comparatively rare.  Obviously significant numbers of children benefit from a wide range of shared activities that involve transmission of skills, knowledge and understanding, for example children who learn to bake with a parent or carer. Attending a  religious service lacks the creativity of baking but it does involve a powerful shared experience.  Even at its most negative,  going to a place of worship binds parent and child in a shared sense of boredom, duty and opportunity cost.  

Politicians enjoy the contribution faith primary schools make to upward trends in national attainment data. Their policies seek to preserve this benefit whilst removing any sense of group identity that can act as a barrier to the individualism that underpins growth in post industrial, market economies. In trying to perpuate or replicate the academic success of faith primary schools whilst removing a key feature of the faith, policy is undermining the process of learning by removing the balance between the transmission of group identity and individual growth. Too much emphasis on group identity  has contributed in the past to anti-intellectualism,  abuse, sectarianism and radicalisation. Too much emphasis on the individual child as potential consumer leads to insecurity in a narrow curriculum that breaks the links between education and human fulfilment. 

At the moment, there is insufficient research into what underlies the patterns in the primary attainment data.  There is a case to be made that teachers in faith primary schools contribute to and benefit from their work in passing on a worldview that balances society’s aspirations while giving meaning to learning beyond individual materialism. Unless research contributes to an understanding of the processes (including possibly uncomfortable findings for neo-liberal politicians who subscribe to the Thatcherite view that there is no such thing as society) policy may lead to the disappearance of an important educational phenomenon that is a feature of a range of faiths and philosophies. 


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