High-performing comprehensives take just half the rate of disadvantaged pupils as the average state school.


How much more a house in the catchment area of a high-performing comprehensive costs.


Four out of five parents think school admissions should be fairer.

Help us to create a fairer system

School admissions are complex and controversial. To help create a fairer system, we want to create concrete guidance that can help schools and local authorities implement admissions policies that work for families and schools across the country.

But to do this, we need your help. We’re asking schools and organisations to take part in our short consultation, which will inform our work the direction of our work over the next few months. We want to know about your experiences with admissions, including the barriers you’ve faced and what’s worked well for you in your community.

How do school admissions work?

Do parents and carers get to choose which school their child goes to?

In England, parents and carers can choose the schools they want to apply to, usually 3 or 6, depending on the area they live in. There are a number of sources that they can use to make their choices, including Ofsted reports, open days, anecdotal evidence and league table performances.

If their first-choice school is undersubscribed, they are given a place. Around half of schools have more applicants than there are places (sometimes dramatically more). High-performing schools are the most likely to be oversubscribed, so for these schools, which children gain a place depends on a school’s admissions criteria.

Evidence shows parents from poorer backgrounds submit as many school preferences as better-off parents, and take account of school quality when making their choices. This suggests that it is school admissions criteria that disadvantages those from lower socio-economic groups.

How do schools decide which pupils to admit?

Some schools can decide their own admissions criteria (academies, voluntary aided schools, foundation and free schools), while others have the criteria set by the local authority.

Whether they write their own criteria or not, all schools have to follow the school admissions code (see below). This code lays out what schools can and can’t do in their admissions policies.

For most oversubscribed schools, living very nearby is typically the key factor in determining who gains a place. This makes houses near to good schools more expensive, so access to the best schools is then affected by family income – who can or cannot afford to pay the housing premium near to the best schools.

Additionally, faith schools can use faith-based admissions criteria. These schools are often among the most socially selective, partly as a result of the frequently complex faith criteria that families must meet in order to be admitted.

What is the school admissions code?

The most recent school admissions code was released in 2014, and says that:

    • All schools must give highest priority to children who are currently or have previously been in care.
    • Admissions policies should not disadvantage children from a particular social or racial group, or those with a disability or special educational needs.
    • Schools can use distance from the school in their admissions policies. When distance is used, permitted distances from the school must be clearly and precisely set out, and catchment areas must be designed so that they are ‘reasonable’. Parents from outside a catchment area can still apply to a school.
    • Schools can give priority to disadvantaged children eligible for the Pupil Premium.
    • Schools may use both banding and ballots in their admissions policies.
    • Religious schools may take account of the religious background or activities of a child. New academies and free schools must reserve 50% of places for non-faith applicants.
    • Schools are allowed to select up to 10% of pupils on the basis of aptitude for sport, the performing or visual arts, languages, or in some cases information technology and design.
    • Schools may designate a ‘feeder’ primary or middle school and give priority to pupils who have attended the feeder school.

What can schools do?

The majority of secondary schools in England now set their own admissions policies. Schools and multi-academy trusts have significant freedom, within the terms of the Schools Admissions Code, to adjust their admissions criteria.

It is important that schools consider the socio-economic background of their community, and potential barriers for less well-off families, when setting their admissions policies. Schools who do this are less likely to be socially exclusive.

A variety of strategies, including ballots, banding and priority for disadvantaged families are all permissible under the current School Admissions Code, and many schools already do so.

What are the options for a fairer system?

The Trust is looking at a number of policies, with the potential to improve fairness in how schools decide which pupils to admit. These include, but are not limited to:



Schools reserve a proportion of their places to be allocated by random draw. All applicants to the school, excluding those already accepted through the standard priorities, would be given a random number, regardless of any other priority status at the school. This would be used to rank applicants to fill up the remaining places in the school.

Priority for disadvantaged families

Priority for disadvantaged families

Schools prioritise applicants based on their family income. It’s already legal for schools to prioritise pupils from poorer households. From 2014 the admissions code enabled schools to admit students on the basis of their eligibility for the pupil premium.

Banding tests

Banding tests

The primary aim of banding tests in school admissions is to achieve a comprehensive intake in terms of academic ability. Typically, a school sets a test for all applicants and admits equal numbers of students from each ability band.This ensures a range of ability in the school, central to the ethos of the comprehensive schools’ movement.

Simplifying faith school admissions

Simplifying faith school admissions

At the moment, schools are allowed to use complex and quite different criteria on applicants to judge religious observance. For example, schools can rank applicants according to their observed religiosity.

Working with the various faith communities to assess barriers to entry could help develop more straightforward criteria for parents.

Our school system is highly socially segregated. Schools with well-off intakes sit alongside those with high levels of disadvantage. And low- and moderate-income families are less likely to access the highest performing schools.

It’s clear that parents and teachers alike want to see a much fairer system, where schools better reflect their communities. This would have far-reaching benefits, from better levels of overall attainment to improved teacher recruitment and retention.

Sir Peter Lampl | founder and chairman, the Sutton Trust

Want to know more about our school admissions work?