School admissions: Don't just rearrange the deckchairs

School admissions are still largely dictated by income and class. But change is in the gift of schools, says James Turner

Two wooden towers, with gulf between them

Who goes to which school really does matter. 

Admissions are not a peripheral issue, but one that goes to the heart of the big challenges facing our education system: the attainment gap between rich and poor, teacher recruitment and retention, not to mention the social and cultural divisions brought into sharp relief by Brexit

However, it is income and class that still dictate, to a large extent, where children end up at school in England.

This isn’t only driven by the exclusivity of our independent sector and remaining grammars: the usual suspects of low social mobility. 

Numerous Sutton Trust studies over the last 15 years have documented how few children from poorer homes access the highest-performing comprehensive schools – even when those schools are on their doorsteps.

And what one school does has a knock-on effect for its neighbours. Especially in our big cities, we have all-ability schools with affluent intakes cheek-by-jowl with schools with high levels of disadvantage

Engaging with the process

From today’s research by Anna Vignoles and Simon Burgess, we know that low-income families engage with the school-choice process as much as any other. 

These parents make as many choices as richer families. They are as (un)likely to choose the local school (most parents do not in fact put their closest school first), and as likely to take account of exam performance in the choices they make. 

But this engagement is frustrated when popular schools are oversubscribed and it is schools that choose pupils – often by proximity, sometimes by faith criteria – rather than the other way around. 

The dust tends to settle firmly on the side of the better-off, and poorer children end up in schools with a much lower proportion of children achieving at least five good GCSEs

We’re not alone in seeing all this as a concern. The polling we are releasing today shows that parents overwhelmingly want schools to be mixed and to mirror their communities.

And they reject the notion that children should be educated with others “just like them”.

Social segregation

Working-class parents are particularly likely to favour reform – perhaps unsurprisingly, as they are the ones who tend lose out most. 

Half of school leaders also agree that social segregation is a problem in the system. Almost three-quarters feel that improving the social mix would have a positive effect in comprehensive schools, in terms of greater social cohesion, overall levels of achievement and teacher workload.

But our survey also reveals that teachers and leaders in schools that the data shows are socially selective do not always recognise this fact. 

And surprisingly – bearing in mind how fundamental the question of intake is to a school – most headteachers say they don’t take account of social mix when setting their admissions policies.

Tricky territory

So what can be done to make our system work better for opportunity? 

This is tricky territory. On a simple level, most people want to see schools reflecting their communities and taking students from a range of backgrounds. 

But what exactly is a school’s “community” and what constitutes a fair share of different pupils? How do we balance schools having a connection to their local area, while avoiding selection solely by house price? 

And how can faith schools determine religious commitment in a way that also makes them more socio-economically diverse?

There are no easy answers. Over the coming months, we will be working with academy chains, local authorities, faith groups, governors and headteachers – as well as releasing further research – to better understand how to answer these questions. 

As a start, we want as many of these organisations as possible to tell us what they think through a short survey on our website

Change is in the gift of schools

The good news is that change is in the gift of schools and their admissions authorities.

Two-thirds of secondary leaders are open to conducting a fair admissions review, which would be an important first step in deciding what action (if any) is needed next. 

The School Admissions Code is also relatively permissive, in terms of allowing the use of different approaches to promote fair access, whether by giving priority to poorer students, the use of marginal ballots, banding by ability, or more complex schemes. 

Of course, schools don’t operate in a vacuum. There may also be reforms at the system level – for example around Ofsted, league tables and the like – that will make change more likely. 

Certainly, high-performing schools that step up to the plate and serve the most disadvantaged should be rewarded for doing so.

Let’s be clear: reforming school admissions is not about rearranging the deck chairs. It’s about offering individual opportunity to thousands of pupils from poorer backgrounds, while making the system fairer and more effective overall. 

We think the moral and educational case is strong. Now schools need practical guidance and the political support to act.

James Turner is CEO of the Sutton Trust

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