FAITH AND FAITH SCHOOLS: New evidence of the impact on life outcomes

13 Apr 2021

Beliefs of those who attend faith schools might be more important than the institutions themselves in terms of educational, economic and faith outcomes, according to research by Andrew McKendrick.

His study of 8,000 14 year olds in the UK up to the age of 25 finds that those who are more faithful tend to achieve more passes and better grades at GCSE. There is also some evidence that academic test scores at age 18 and likelihood of attending university are also positively affected.

But faith schools in themselves are not as effective: there are no robust results for educational outcomes. But there is another outcome that is increased by both belief and faith schooling: likelihood of an individual being a Christian at age 25. Being more devout or going to a Christian school makes you more likely to be a Christian 11 years later.

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Somewhere over the last 15 years or so, economics got religion. Economics journals have seen a sixfold increase in papers published about religion – looking at the impacts of belief on topics as diverse as how often you have sex or get into fights to how likely you are to pay your taxes.

This study looks at education – specifically, do devout 14-year-olds living in England go on to perform better than their secular friends in terms of their GCSEs, A-levels and university attendance? And we find big effects on GCSE attainment – a third of an extra pass for the faithful compared with the unfaithful. That’s big compared to the average of six passes.

The author reports his findings:

The data

How do we measure belief? Some papers use frequency of church attendance or simply ask people their religious denomination. We don’t find this convincing; in general, but particularly for young people. You might say you're a Christian because you parents are. Or your parents might drag you to church every week, but you might not care about what you hear while there.

Instead, we use responses from up to 8,000 students to the question, ‘how important is your faith to the way you live your life?’. This question is better, if not perfect. Our data (called Next Steps) tracks these 14-year-olds up until age 25 and has administrative records of their attainment, information about their families (including their parents’ religious beliefs) and a raft of different characteristics of the school they attend.

No paper of this kind would be complete without looking at faith schools – that’s where the more devout are likely to be studying. So, we compare the effects of the individual’s belief to that of their institution.

Gotta have faith?

Overall, belief is more important than the faith of the institution. Those who are more faithful tend to achieve more passes and better grades at GCSE. There is also some evidence that academic test scores at age 18 and likelihood of attending university are also positively affected – but when we perform further tests (the so-called Oster test) these results disappear. Faith schools are not as effective; no robust results for educational outcomes are identified.

We have another outcome that is increased by both belief and faith schooling, though: likelihood of an individual being a Christian at age 25. Being more devout or going to a Christian school makes you more likely to be a Christian 11 years later.

Why faith? And why faith schools?

So why would faith affect how well you achieve? We dig into this using personality traits as controls in mediation analysis. The Next Steps data include questions for the respondents about their work ethic, how much control they feel they have in their lives, their self-confidence, and how sociable they are. We find that while these variables are important, they don't diminish the effect of belief – it seems to be genuine.

And what makes faith schools so appealing if they don’t increase your grades? We use measures of bullying experienced by the young people and how satisfied parents are with the ethos of their child’s school to find that faith schools perform better than secular schools across virtually all measures. There’s more to what schools do than test scores.

The study adds to an extensive literature that suggests that faith school effects are mixed. We suggest that the belief of those who attend faith schools might be more important than the institutions themselves.

Andrew McKendrick

Lancaster University | a.mckendrick@lancaster.ac.uk