Carl Cullinane on the background to the Selective Comprehensives report.

Today, around half a million families across England will discover which secondary school their child will be attending from September. As application rates have increased in recent years, this process has become more and more competitive, with many schools, particularly the better ones, increasingly oversubscribed. While the pressure on places varies by area, in some local authorities anything up to half of children will miss out on their first choice school. In fact, one in seven schools are at or over capacity, with that figure set to increase given the expected growth in applicant numbers in the near future. So with so many comprehensives oversubscribed, how fair is the process of getting a place?

The Sutton Trust has been working on this issue for over ten years now, highlighting in 2006 the extent to which England’s top performing comprehensives, were, in effect, highly socially selective. Children eligible for Free School Meals were significantly under-represented in the 200 schools with the highest attainment, with substantially lower rates than the typical comprehensive, but also lower even than the neighbourhood surrounding the school. Our 2013 research continued this theme with an expanded list of 500 schools, looking at how the shift away from local authority controlled admissions to schools managing their own admissions processes had changed the picture.

This year sees the school league tables, by which a school’s performance is assessed by parents and education authorities alike, changing significantly. Up until 2016, the headline figure was the proportion of pupils in a school achieving 5 A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and Maths (5A*CEM). This has been replaced by the new Progress 8, which measures how pupils progress across a range of eight subjects in comparison to their ability before entering secondary school. This shift means less of a ‘reward’ for schools taking in pupils with high prior attainment, with potential consequences both for how schools view their intake and how parents’ perceive the best schools. This is the context in which our new research report – Selective Comprehensives 2017 – renews our focus on secondary school admissions.

Spread of secondary schools by FSM uptake

Figure 1. Spread of Free School Meal (FSM) rates across schools

The top performing 500 schools using the traditional 5A*CEM measure continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%). While roughly half of this gap can be attributed to the location of high attaining schools in catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, the rest is due to social selection in admissions occurring even within those neighbourhoods. 85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more, indicating they are substantially unrepresentative of their locality.

However, as can be seen in Figure 1, the best 500 schools measured by the Department for Education’s new ‘Progress 8’ measure have FSM rates much closer to the national average (15.2%). They are also less socially selective, with a third of these schools actually admitting more FSM pupils than their catchment area. These schools are more accessible, have higher intakes of disadvantaged pupils, yet perform strongly for their pupils. Nonetheless, while a rebalancing of how schools are valued is welcome, there should be no complacency that the problem of social selectivity is solved. Progress for pupils is highly valuable, but it is absolute levels of attainment that open doors for disadvantaged pupils to university and beyond. Therefore access to schools that excel at both progress and high levels of attainment (a crossover of 270 schools in our two lists) is essential, and this group of schools remain selective, with average gap of 3.5% between the school FSM rate and that of their catchment area.

Social selectivity of 500 top schools

Figure 2. Gap between school FSM rate and catchment area, by school type among top 500 A*CEM schools

Using the traditional 5A*CEM measure, faith schools are among the most socially selective group, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools (6% FSM gap versus 2% in non-faith schools). Faith schools are also substantially over-represented in the list of top schools on the traditional measure, as are single sex schools. Girls’ schools make up twice the number of boys’ schools in the top 500, and have a substantial FSM gap of 6.8%.

Social selection in a comprehensive system occurs through a variety of mechanisms, including the nuances of complicated school admissions codes, information availability, and parental choice. One of the ways the latter manifests itself is through the property market. Surveys frequently show that parents are willing to move house to live in a particular school’s catchment area, and this is borne out in their behaviour, with our research showing that houses in the catchment areas of top schools generally cost about 20% more than a typical house in the same local authority.

Figure 5

Figure 3. House price differentials in top school catchment areas, by region

House buyers willing and able to pay a substantial premium to live in the catchment area of a top school are likely, over time, to lower the accessibility of the school to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This undermines the nature of the comprehensive system, and introduces an element of de facto selection based on ability to pay.

Instead, a reduced emphasis on proximity in school admissions would allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive house buying incentives. The Sutton Trust recommends two methods in particular: ballots, where a proportion of pupils are selected randomly – we suggest half; or banding, where applicants are tested and places allocated equally across a range of ability levels. In combination with better information availability and improved transport provision, ballots and banding can be used to ensure a fairer admissions process, enabling more disadvantaged pupils to access the best schools and promoting a genuinely comprehensive system. 

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