Attitudes towards School Choice and Faith Schools in the UK: A Question of Individual Preference or Collective Interest?
Based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of Social Policy
Giving parents the opportunity to exercise greater choice in where and how their children are educated has been a common theme of educational policy in England during the last three or four decades. As well as giving parents the right to express a preference as to which school their children should attend, the policy has resulted in a greater diversity in the types of school that the state provides or funds.
According to many of its protagonists, an integral part of the diversity promoted by the school choice agenda is providing parents with the opportunity to send their children to a faith-based school. Our paper assesses whether this link exists in the minds of the general public. It examines whether attitudes towards faith-based schools in all four parts of the UK are a reflection of attitudes towards the principle of school choice or whether, alternatively, they are largely the product of people’s sense of religious identity.
Our analysis finds that the general principle of school choice is strongly supported by the public across all four parts of the UK. However the provision of faith-based schools is nothing like as popular. Moreover, those who support the principle of school choice are no more likely to support the provision of faith-based schools than voters in general.
Protestants, Catholics and those who do not identify with any religion have very similar attitudes towards the principle of school choice. However, they have very different attitudes towards the provision of faith-based schools. People’s attitudes to faith-based schools reflect their religious identity and how far the provision of faith-based schools might be thought to promote the values and interests of the religious group with which they identify.
A majority of Catholics express support for faith-based schools, but only a minority of Protestants and the non religious do so. Equally importantly, the extent to which Protestants and the non religious oppose such schools varies from one part of the UK to another. They are much more likely to be amenable to the idea in both England and Wales, where there are both Catholic and Protestant faith-based schools, than they are in either Scotland or Northern Ireland, where nearly all faith-based schools are Catholic in character. In other words, if the term ‘religious schools’ stands for more than ‘Catholic education’ in their part of the UK, Protestants and the non religious are less likely to regard these schools as simply a means of fostering the values and ethos of those whom they may regard as an outgroup.
Rather than reflecting a supposedly a-social concern with choice, support for faith-based schools appears to be rooted instead in potentially antagonistic social identities. Policy makers interested in pursuing public service reform, whether in the UK or elsewhere, cannot assume that apparent public support for choice in the abstract will necessarily translate into backing for any and every form of possible provision.