In 2020, we were ready to begin work on school admissions but as with many things this was disrupted by the pandemic. Charley O’Regan, our Senior Schools Engagement Manager, shares why reforming the admissions system is so important and why we need to refocus on the issue. If you would like to know more about our school admissions work, sign up for our school admissions mailing list.

For many school leaders there will be one thing on their mind in the second half of the autumn term: student recruitment. There will be the relentless schedule of open mornings and informal tours, the main event of ‘The Open Evening’ and for some schools even a media campaign. All with the aim of recruiting their next intake of students.

Prior to joining the Sutton Trust last month, I had been a senior leader for 6 years, most of those in a non-selective secondary school in a local authority with selective schools. Every single leader I worked alongside during those 6 years shared the same reasons for choosing this career as I did – to give children the best future possible. Social mobility is at the heart of why schools do what they do.

What the research says about school admissions

It is therefore disappointing to see the data on how selective some of the best comprehensives in the country are. Our research in 2019 found that the top 500 comprehensives in England had on average a lower proportion of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in their schools than the national average. But this isn’t just down to differences in regional affluence. The research found that they also had a lower proportion of children eligible for the FSM in their school than their local catchment area. In other words, if you are eligible for Free School Meals you are less likely to attend a top 500 comprehensive, even if one is open in your catchment area.

Often, the best schools are oversubscribed, making the “oversubscription criteria” a particularly pivotal element in shaping their future cohorts. Currently the two most common criteria used by secondary schools are: having a sibling in the school already (95%); and some sort of geographical component (88%). As a result, our research in 2017 found that a typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority. This is clearly a significant barrier for lower income families accessing these top schools.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, our polling in 2020 found that the most socially selective schools were the least likely to identify that social segregation was an issue in their own school as well as the system as a whole…Put simply – it isn’t good enough and it isn’t fair. We know that to improve social mobility in Britain we need to ensure that every child has equal access the very best education possible. Improving equity of access to the best schools would not only level the playing field for families from all socio-economic backgrounds, having a better social mix across the school system could additionally contribute to a stronger and more equitable system overall.

For school leaders there is a vast array of factors and influences that you have no control over when running your schools, but this isn’t one of them. It has been almost 10 years since the School Admissions Code changed to allow schools to include eligibility for the Pupil Premium in their over subscription criteria. Around 90% of secondary schools have now chosen to decentralise and have either direct control over their admissions policy or work with their MAT leaders to set them. Whilst geographical patterns of deprivation are something school leaders can’t change, updates to their admissions policies, no matter how small, can have a positive impact on the young people we serve.

Let’s be honest though, changing admissions policies is harder than just knowing that you could theoretically do it. Our research has also shown that 54% of teachers cite class differences in parental preferences as a barrier to improving social mix in schools. 48% shared concerns over the impact on league tables and 37% cite difficulties associated with teaching pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If you are one of the incredible school leaders that wants to put social mobility at the centre of your admissions policies, you might be starting to feel like a bit of a lone wolf. But across the country the first glimmers of change can be seen. Some schools are shaping their culture on their belief in social mobility rather than geography.

Change is possible

One Degree Academy is a great example of such a school.

I spoke to Joe Howlett, Chief Operating Officer, who told me that they named the school as such because they believe that if you can change the course of a child’s life by one degree then you can change the trajectory of their entire lives. Joe spoke with passion about their belief that the quality of the education a child receives should not be determined by the postcode they live in. Their admissions policy reflects their aim to ensure the school reflects the mix of the community they serve and the families that will benefit most. As a result, they have a free bus; subsidised wrap around care; and carefully crafted over-subscription criteria. Their results speak for themselves: 92% of their original cohort left year 6 having met the expected standard in all three of their KS2 SATs. They have made a direct impact on the social mobility of the young people in their community.

If this has hit a nerve and you’re keen to do more, the Sutton Trust is on this journey with you.

In the coming months, we will be releasing an updated piece of research looking at the school admissions system. We are also launching a new initiative to support leaders who want to make their schools a more inclusive place that truly values social mobility. In the first phase of this initiative, we are looking for school leaders who want to share their thoughts on the current context, the challenges they face, the potential mechanisms for change and what support they will need to make them.

Sign up to our school admissions mailing list and start your journey today. Find out more about our work on school admissions.


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