Religion Is a Force for a Good Education? Hitchens/Blair Debate in Toronto Motivates Some Reflection

November 26, 2010

As thousands of people watch Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair debate "Religion is a force for good in the world" here in Toronto tonight (and many more follow online or at public screenings like the ones we're hosting in Toronto, Calgary and elsewhere), I'm reflecting on one of my personal issues: "Is religion a force for good education?"  We often here that students in religious schools, especially the Catholic publicly funded school system in Ontario, outperform their secular counterparts. But is this really true?  Certainly former British Prime Minister Tony Blair thinks so, as he authorized the public funding of state muslim, jewish and other faith schools in the UK.

But an article in the Economist, " State Schools and Selection: The Religious and the Rational ", came out not too long ago calling for some critical thinking with respect to the British educational system.  It turns out that the claims that such religious schools offer a better quality of education are based on a fundamental data bias.

The proportion of children entitled to free school meals at Catholic and Church of England schools is lower than at non-religious state schools. The Church of England has promised to set aside places at its new schools for children whose parents profess other religions or none at all, but the pledge has no legal force.

As the Economist reported back in April 2009 in " Education Reforms: Out the Window ", pupils attending religious schools aren't improving their performance, as we would expect if religious education was of a higher quality.

The study looked at GCSE results in both sorts of schools. “We could have found that faith schools benefited all parents, including those who didn’t, or couldn’t, choose them, if other schools improved in an attempt to hang on to pupils,” says Anna Vignoles, one of the researchers. But they came across no such benign competitive effects—indeed, they found no effects at all. Children at religious schools made no more progress than those at secular ones, and areas where there were many religious schools did no better than those where there were few. “What is described as a quasi-market clearly is not working,” concludes Ms Vignoles.

Rather, religious schools benefit religious parents and their children on the one hand, and teachers and the schools themselves on the other, for one simple reason. giving religious people more choice than other parents, the government has weakened competitive pressures in another way. The researchers checked which schools had the most students with the best prospects for academic success in their neighbourhoods. Most religious schools turned out to have more than their fair share of bright, well-off kids, and correspondingly fewer stragglers and poor ones. If secular schools with religious neighbours know that whatever they do they will get lumbered with the hardest pupils to teach, they may resign themselves to being at the bottom of discerning parents’ wish lists and give up trying

Faith schools have the ability to choose which pupils they admit.  Secular schools must accept everyone.  Religious schools may open their doors to students that are for reasons quite apart from faith of higher aptitude, or children of wealthier parents (which statistically tends to correlate with higher parental education).  Secular schools by contrast end up being left with the rejected students.  On top of which, secular schools are biased towards having a higher per capita of children of religious parents that don't care enough about their children's education to shop around.  Such children are statistically at higher risk for doing poorly in school, again for reasons quite apart from faith or the lack thereof.

I'd try to telepathically share this data with Hitchens tonight, although I suspect he'll do just fine on his own!