Over 1,500 English primary schools have complicated oversubscription criteria that result in intakes that are socially very different to their local neighbourhoods, meaning many disadvantaged pupils could be missing out on places at top-performing state schools. This is according to Caught Out, a new Sutton Trust research brief by Dr Rebecca Allen and Meenakshi Parameshwaran of Education Datalab, published before thousands of parents across the country find out at which primary school their child has been offered a place.

Today’s findings raise concerns about equity in access to primary schools, either because higher-income families are more likely to be able to exercise choice or because their admissions criteria favour certain pupils.

The report looked at the difference between the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school’s intake and that of its local neighbourhood to establish how socially selective it is. They found considerable variation in how much primary school intakes diverge from their local neighbourhood but the top 10% most socially selective primary schools have a proportion of disadvantaged pupils that are at least 9.2 percentage points different than the communities they serve. There are 1,576 schools in this category, with 310,000 pupils.

This could be hurting poorer children’s chances of success. Caught Out identifies correlations between a school’s performance and its socially selectivity. Just 1% of schools in the bottom 10% for performance in Key Stage 2 tests are also in the top 10% most socially selective schools. In contrast, 14% of schools in the top 10% for Key Stage 2 are also in the top 10% of socially selective schools.

The most socially selective primary schools tend to use more complex oversubscription criteria than the typical school, which uses about five criteria. These are often faith-based which gives greater choice of school to churchgoing families, who are more likely to be of a higher social class. Of the 100 most socially selective primary schools identified by the brief, one used as many as 18 different oversubscription criteria.

The research brief identifies the 20 local authorities that have the biggest proportion of schools in the top 10% most socially selective primary schools. These include Blackpool, Hartlepool, Westminster and Hammersmith & Fulham. Outside London particularly, this appears to be a result of faith-based admissions policies in voluntary aided, particularly Catholic, schools in these towns. Proximity to the school tends to fall relatively far down the list of oversubscription criteria for these schools, as they prioritise baptised children living further away.

Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that the majority of successful comprehensives and grammar schools have significantly lower intakes of disadvantaged pupils than in the numbers in their local communities.

The report calls for tighter admissions policies to make sure that disadvantaged pupils have fair access to their local primary schools. It recommends that:

– Schools should consider the impact of their oversubscription criteria on disadvantaged pupils and prioritise them accordingly.
– Religious schools should make more places open to the local community with simple and consistent admissions criteria that are fair to all.
– To prevent cheating by parents and poor practice in schools, the Schools Admissions Code must be properly enforced.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Disadvantaged young people should have the same chance of accessing the best state school in their neighbourhood as their better off neighbour. We have previously documented social selectivity in secondary schools, but today’s findings warn us that primary school admissions are far from a level-playing field. We need to make sure that oversubscribed schools do more to prioritise pupils from disadvantaged homes and the Schools Adjudicator does more to prevent parents from gaming the system.”

Dr Becky Allen, Director of Education Datalab, said: “There are many benefits to giving parents a choice over where their child is educated, but our new research shows that that there is not equity in access to many primary schools, either because higher-income families are advantaged in their ability to exercise choice or because their admissions criteria favour certain pupils.”


1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 170 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. For this research, we defined a small areas – the lower layer super output area (SOA) – as being part of a primary school’s recruitment neighborhood if at least five pupils have attended the school within the last five years (2010 – 2014). Since primary school intakes are small we looked at five years of reception year intakes to stabilise the data. To measure social divergence between school and neighborhood, we calculated the school’s percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) over five reception cohorts and compared it to the % of pupils eligible for FSM in the school’s recruitment neighborhood. So, for example, if a school has intakes where 16% of pupils are eligible for FSM, yet 25% of pupils living in the recruitment neighborhoods are FSM then we assigned a social divergence value of -9 percentage points.
3. The Sutton Trust has previously published research on admissions to comprehensive schools highlighting the social selectivity of some comprehensives and grammar schools. See Selective Comprehensives and Poor Grammar. Our Parent Power? report detailed how some parents cheat the admissions system.

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