Four in five top-performing comprehensive schools are 'socially selective'

On national secondary school offer day, the Sutton Trust social mobility charity urges schools to change admissions procedures to ensure they take in more disadvantaged pupils

Eleanor Busby

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New research published today highlights barriers to attending top-performing comprehensives, revealing that they take fewer disadvantaged pupils than average and that houses in their catchment areas cost an average of £45,700 extra.

The non-selective schools where pupils are most likely to get five good GCSEs take just 9.4 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2 per cent), according to the study from the Sutton Trust social mobility charity. 

Around half of this gap is due to the location of high-attaining schools in catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, but today’s report suggests that the rest is down to social selection in admissions.

More than four-fifths (85 per cent) of the top 500 comprehensive schools for GCSE attainment take fewer disadvantaged pupils than the proportion who live in their catchment area, according to the analysis carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The report – published on national offer day – also says that living in the catchment area of a top non-selective school is associated with a house price "premium" of around 20 per cent – with a house costing £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority.

The Sutton Trust is calling on schools to reduce the emphasis on catchment areas by using ballots or banding to ensure that disadvantaged pupils have fair access to their local state schools, and that families who can afford to buy houses in the right postcode are less able to "game" the system.

More ballots for school places

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Getting a place at a high-attaining school is key to getting on in life. Yet the bottom line is your chances of doing that depends on your parents’ income and whether they can afford the extra £45,700 house premium to live in the catchment area.

“This is why we want to see more use of ballots – where a proportion of places is allocated randomly. Ballots would ensure that a wider mix of pupils would get into the best schools.”

The research did find, however, that the situation has improved slightly. The average proportion of disadvantaged pupils in the best schools is up to 9.4 per cent from 7.6 per cent in 2013.

And the best performing schools under the Department for Education's new Progress 8 performance measure have FSM rates much closer to the national average (15.2 per cent) and are less socially selective. A third of these schools actually admit more FSM pupils than the proportion in their catchment area.

The report also notes that socially selective schools which control their own admissions policies – such as converter academies and faith schools – are all over-represented in the top 500 schools.

Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said the report raised a number of “disturbing issues” around social selection.

“This is not a situation that can be allowed to continue," he said. "Yet if the government presses ahead with its stated aim of seeing all schools become academies by 2022, it is one that can only get worse with more schools becoming responsible for their own admission arrangements.

“The only solution is to return the role of admission authority for all schools in a local area to the local authority. That way parents can be assured that the system for admission to school is fair and transparent and not influenced by the social status of their family.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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