A new study by the Sutton Trust based on data provided by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that high-achieving comprehensive schools are socially exclusive. The research also shows that those schools which are responsible for their own admissions take a low proportion of pupils on free school meals (FSM) which is an indicator of a school’s overall social mix, compared to the postcode sectors in which the schools are sited. This suggests that without adequate safeguards the Trust schools proposed in the White Paper could become socially selective.

The report finds that the overall proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals at the 200 highest performing comprehensive schools is 5.6%, compared to 11.5% of children in the postcode sectors of the schools, and 14.3% in secondary schools nationally.
Comprehensive schools which are responsible for their own admissions are found to be much more likely to feature in the top 200 than those which do not, accounting for 31% of state secondary schools, but 70% of the top 200. These schools are unrepresentative of their local areas, with 5.8% of pupils eligible for free school meals, compared to 13.7% in their postcode sectors – which is close to the national average of 14.3%. By contrast, the 61 local authority controlled schools in the top 200 are generally found in affluent areas, with FSM rates of 5.9%, which is well below the national average. These schools are representative of their neighbourhoods, with a proportion of pupils on FSM of 5.0% – only one percentage point lower than the areas in which they are located.

The report also highlights that faith schools account for 18% of all secondary schools, but 42% of the top 200 comprehensives, including 59% of the top schools which are responsible for their own admissions.

The research follows a similar study by the Sutton Trust last October which showed that the proportion of children entitled to free school meals at the top 200 state schools (161 of which were grammar schools) was only 3%.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “These findings starkly underline the extent of the social divide in our education system. The top fifth of schools – independents, grammars and leading comprehensives – are effectively closed to those from less privileged backgrounds. To access them, parents must pay for fees, pay for coaching or prep school for their children to pass the 11 plus, live in an affluent area or prove a religious commitment combined with strong parental support. For less privileged families these are not realistic options.

The White Paper does not deal with independent schools and grammar schools, which are the top performing schools in the country, and the preserve of the most affluent, and need to be opened up to everyone. The open access scheme at the independent Belvedere School in Liverpool and the widening participation scheme at Pate’s Grammar School in Cheltenham are pilots which have shown how this can be done whilst maintaining high standards.

The proposals in the White Paper for choice advisers and extended school transport are steps in the right direction, but many of the current inequities in admissions result from the two tier system, under which some schools are responsible for their own admissions and others are not. We believe that LEA schools should be responsible for their own admissions, so as to put all schools on an equal footing, but that admissions should be underpinned by a fair and robust Code of Practice which is rigorously enforced.

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