Many children in England attend their nearest primary school, but these schools can have intakes that are quite different from their local neighbourhoods. In this research brief we describe where and why primary school intakes differ substantially in their social composition from the local neighbourhoods from which they recruit. This divergence may be because local families are choosing to attend a different school or because the school is using oversubscription criteria that do not strictly prioritise those who live closest to the school.
We look at the relationship between the social divergence between a school’s pupil intake and local neighbourhood to the characteristics of both the school and the area in which they are located. We also explore the admissions policies of the schools with the highest levels of social divergence in some detail and make some policy suggestions to improve access to primary schools, particularly for low income families.
- There are well over 1,000 primary schools where the free school meals proportion is over 10 percentage points lower than that found in the neighbourhoods from which they recruit.
- These socially selective primary schools are more likely to be found in London and other urban areas. They are often schools with a religious character who have chosen to apply religious oversubscription criteria.
- Socially selective primary schools tend to use lengthy and more complex oversubscription criteria to decide who is allocated a place. These criteria can be complex for parents to navigate.
- Schools should consider the impact of their oversubscription criteria on pupil-premium children, and prioritise them in admissions.
Residential sorting encourages stratification, and any choice system should guard against this rather than reinforce it. However, the benefits of walking to school, allowing young children to be educated with friends and nurturing community cohesion around the schools’ activities cannot be ignored. Within these constraints, schools may still consider prioritising pupil premium pupils – particularly where there are several neighbourhood schools, to avoid such social stratification.
- The School Admissions Code should be properly enforced, with clearer permissible criteria and open complaints procedures.
The Schools Adjudicator and the Schools Admissions Code are designed to ensure that admissions remain fair. For this to happen it is important that it is properly enforced, including preventing cheating by parents or poor practice by schools. It may also be better to express the code in terms of what is allowed rather than focusing largely on what is not permitted. The Schools Adjudicator should be able to rule on admissions where a complaint has not been made and the right of individuals and organisations to raise concerns should not be constrained.
- All religious schools should make places open to the local community with simple and consistent religious admissions criteria.
We recognise the important role of religious communities in the provision of primary education so we cannot avoid the very real trade-offs between allowing religious schools to give priority to those who can demonstrate faith and social sorting. That said, many Church of England dioceses do not believe that religious selection is necessary to promote a religious ethos in their schools. New faith free schools are expected to provide 50% of places for those of other or no faiths. We think there needs to be greater scrutiny of legacy criteria at existing schools, ensuring that any religious admissions criteria and processes are straightforward and fair to all.