Taxpayers' cash should not be used to fund faith schools, say voters (But what did the survey really ask?)


Taxpayers' cash should not be used to fund faith schools, say voters. Labour wants talks on teaching of religion as poll shows 58% of the public urge abolition or axing of state funds

The above headline in The Guardian intrigued me so I thought I would take a look at the actual questions asked. The survey was carried out by a company called Opinium on behalf of The Observer. On Twitter I tried to find out what questions were actually asked; interesting Richard Adams, Education Editor at the Guardian did not know, but said he would do some digging. I eventually found a pdf of the survey results on Opinium’s website.

In the interests of full disclosure I am a Christian with two children, one of whom is pre-school and the other attends a non-faith primary school. I did not attend a faith school myself. I’m not that interested in faith schools per se, but headlines such as the above invariably lead to debates about the relationships between religion and society that I feel duty bound to take an interest in.

The reason I’ve written this post is that I am very interested in questionnaire design. Questionnaire design is harder than most people think, but one would have thought a company which does surveys in its day to day work would be quite good at designing questionnaires. This one is so lousy I can only think it was politically motivated. It fact it is so bad I’m not entirely clear what the political motivation might have been.

Let’s start from the very beginning and take a look at Question 1. Respondents are asked to choose the opinion which is most like their own—note carefully -- not their opinion but the one that “best describes” their view of faith schools.
There are only three possible opinions plus a ‘Don’t know/ No opinion’ option.

The three available opinions are:

1. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state
2. I have no objection to faith schools existing but they should not be funded by the state (i.e. private schools may be faith schools but not state schools)
3. Faith schools should be banned entirely

The best describes bit might be some sort of attempt to meaningfully take into account some of the nuances involved in such arguments but how views such as the following, which I suspect are widespread, fit into these three options.

1. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state as long as they are only Christian/ CofE/ Catholic/ Muslim etc. (delete as appropriate)
2. I have no objection to faith schools existing and being funded by the state as long as they are NOT Christian/ CofE/ Catholic/ Muslim etc. (delete as appropriate)
3. I agree with faith schools but don’t agree with private faith schools because I don’t agree that there should be private schools.
4. I agree with faith schools as long as they don’t take their faith aspect too seriously.
5. I think all schools should be faith schools.
6. I agree with taxpayer funded faith schools as long as it’s not a really weird religion like…

As 1 and 2 above indicate there is really no such thing as a faith school, merely schools which are in one way or another connected to a specific faith, religion or belief system. Faith schools vary of course within faiths —Oasis academies, CoE voluntary aided village primary schools and ‘fundamentalist’ Christian private schools could all be described as Christian faith schools but they are certainly not the same in their ethos.

Question 5: In your view, how serious a risk is there of some predominantly Muslim schools encouraging their pupils to adopt extremist views?

1.Very serious
2.Quite serious
3.Not very serious
4.Not at all serious
5.Don’t know/ no opinion

The only specific religion mentioned in the survey is Islam. I’m not sure how one could answer this question in any meaningful way. This is in the context of the recent ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy of course, the full facts of which have not really emerged. The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools are not faith schools, or Muslim schools, but schools in which most children (and their parents) identify as Muslims. Overall 74% of those questioned thought there was a serious risk (i.e. very serious or quite serious), but what do we mean by extremist views? Extremists, however defined do not need extremist schools to incubate their views and activities. A lot of teachers would probably feel they are being credited as having far more influence on young people than they actually have.

The footer from the pdf of the report.
The footer from the pdf of the report.

A couple of further points: Although the findings are available there is a statement of confidentiality in the footer of each page. This may have been an oversight, or it might be a case that this data was never meant to be made public. I’ll assume the former until I have evidence to the contrary. It is also unclear how the survey was carried out, though it is possible to register with Opinium as a 'survey filler in' and I suspect people who fill in surveys are less likely to be in the ‘No opinion’ camp.

Whatever the truth the 58% figure does not strike me as particularly likely or unlikely—I’m not even sure if this is higher or lower than what I suspect would be the percentage of people disagreeing with schools having a religious ethos or culture. The Observer is evidently trying to influence the Labour Party on the matter of faith schools. I just wish they had designed a better survey.

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