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85% of top comprehensives with best GCSEs are socially selective, but schools where pupils make most progress are much less so

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The top comprehensive schools for GCSE grades are significantly more socially selective than the average state school in England, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust today. The 500 non-selective state schools where pupils are most likely to get five good GCSEs take just over half the proportion of disadvantaged pupils taken by the average state school (9% v 17%) – and lead to a £45,700 house price premium.

While about half of this gap can be explained by schools serving catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, today’s report suggests that the other half is due to social selection.

Over four-fifths (85%) of schools in the top 500 take fewer disadvantaged pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more, according to the new analysis of the National Pupil Database for the Trust by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

There are some signs that the situation has improved. The average proportion of disadvantaged pupils in the best schools is up to 9.4% from 7.6% in 2013. The proportion of top schools with less than 6% disadvantaged pupils is down from 57% in 2013 to 39% in 2016.

Selective Comprehensives 2017 – published on the day that thousands of pupils across the country find out which secondary school they’ve been admitted to – also looks at the best performing schools on the Department for Education’s new ‘Progress 8’ measure, where schools are assessed on how much progress pupils have made between the ages of 11 and 16. These schools are much less socially selective, with around 15% of their pupils classed as disadvantaged. A third of the schools in this group actually take more disadvantaged pupils than live in their catchment area.

The research also finds that living in the catchment area of a top comprehensive school is associated with a house price ‘premium’ of around 20%. A typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school (based on GCSE attainment) costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority. The best schools measured using Progress 8 are associated with a much lower premium of 8.3% or £18,200.

Progress 8 is seen as a better indicator of the quality of teaching in a school, as it measures the value added for every pupil, including the most and least able. Only 270 schools appear in the Top 500 on both the GCSE and Progress 8 indicators.

Faith schools are also among the most socially selective group of top schools compared to their catchment area, with an average gap of 6%, compared to 2%. Of the faith schools in the top 500, three fifths are Roman Catholic, with slightly less than a third Anglican. While Anglican schools nationally are significantly less socially selective than Catholic Schools, within the best schools, they have similar gaps (5.7% for Anglican and 6.7% for Catholic).

To make sure that disadvantaged pupils have fair access to their local state schools, the Sutton Trust would like to see schools reduce the emphasis on catchment areas by making use of ballots or banding. Ballots can ensure a wider mix of pupils have the possibility of attending the best schools, and banding can help to secure school intakes reflecting a wide range of ability. Doing so would mean families who can afford to buy houses in the right postcode are less able to ‘game’ the system.

The report also calls on the Government to make it easier for all parents to access information about schools admissions and applications, including ensuring that they have a full understanding of Progress 8 and further changes to GCSEs due this year. This could be through work with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities.

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.”

Jude Hillary, NFER Quantitative Research Director, said:

“This report shows that despite some improvements in the last few years, when ranked according to GCSE attainment, top comprehensive schools continue to take fewer pupils on free school meals when compared to their local catchment areas and to the national average.  This matters because the school a pupil attends affects their life chances; pupils who go to top comprehensives are the ones most likely to get into the best universities and most likely to get the best jobs.

“Our analysis also indicates that the top comprehensive schools, when ranked according to the new headline Progress 8 measure, are more aligned with their own catchment areas and the national average, but it is early days for the new measure so it will need to continue to be monitored.”

For more information, please contact Hilary Cornwell on 0207 802 1660


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 180 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is a leading independent provider of rigorous research and insights in education, working to create an excellent education for all children and young people. It is a charity whose robust and innovative research, assessments and other services are widely known and used by key decision-makers. Any surplus generated is reinvested in projects to support its charitable purpose.
  3. The report was authored by Jude Hillary, Joana Andrade and Stephen McNamara at the NFER and Carl Cullinane at the Sutton Trust.
  4. In order to assess the social composition of comprehensive schools, the researchers looked number of pupils eligible for Free School Meals and compared the profile of the pupils admitted to the school with those who could have been admitted. To do this, the researchers created school catchment areas, based on detailed data across three years of Year 7 admissions looking at where schools have recruited from. They compared the proportion of FSM eligible pupils admitted to year 7 over three years between 2014 and 2016 with the proportion of FSM eligible pupils in those years in their catchment area.
  5. The Progress 8 measure is a secondary school accountability system. It measures pupils’ progress across 8 subjects from age 11 to 16.
  6. The Trust published analysis of the social selectivity of top state schools in 2013. Selective Comprehensives looked at the top 500 schools when measured by five good GCSEs including English and Maths and at the top 500 measured according to success in the relatively new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) league table measure.
  7. Summary table:


On 5 A*CEM basis On Progress 8 basis All secondary schools
% of
top 500 comprehensives
Average school FSM rate for top 500 comprehensives % of
top 500 comprehensives
Average school FSM rate for top 500 comprehensives % of all secondary schools Average school FSM rate for all secondary schools
Own Admissions Authorities
   Voluntary aided schools 15% 10% 12% 13% 9% 16%
   Foundation schools 3% 10% 6% 19% 9% 19%
   City Technology Colleges 0.4% 5% 0.4% 5% 0.1% 5%
   Sponsor-led academies 7% 19% 15% 27% 19% 26%
   Converter academies 63% 8% 52% 11% 40% 13%
   Free schools 0.8% 8% 1% 13% 4% 18%
Total 89% 9% 86% 15% 80% 17%
LEA Controlled Admissions
   Community schools 10% 9% 13% 18% 18% 18%
   Voluntary controlled schools 0.2% 5% 1% 17% 1% 12%
Total 11% 9% 14% 18% 20% 17%
Grand Total 100% 9% 100% 15% 100% 17%