James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, makes the case for reforming school admissions. 

Who goes to which schools 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 fifteen 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 on 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, making their jobs harder as a result.

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: they make as many choices as richer families; are as (un)likely to choose the local school (most parents do not in fact put their closet school first); and 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, sometime 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.  So fair admissions go hand-in-hand with effective school choice, which – like it or not – is at the heart of the English system.

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 reject the notion that children should be educated with others ‘just like them’.  Working class parents are particularly likely to favour reform – perhaps unsurprisingly, as it is they 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 – including in terms of greater social cohesion, overall levels of achievement and teacher workload.  But our survey also reveals that teachers and leaders in schools which 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.

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 head teachers – 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.

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 which 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.

This post originally appeared on TES.com at this link

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on the number below. The number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 0204 536 4642

Keep up to date with the latest news