Report Overview 

For 15 years, the Sutton Trust has analysed the social make-up of high-performing comprehensives, finding that the number of disadvantaged pupils at these schools is around half that of the average, and often lower than the average living in the schools’ catchment areas. To inform its work in this area for 2020, the Trust is publishing two research reports:

  • Fairer Schools Admissions – This research brief surveys teachers and parents for their views on school admissions and finds that there is a strong desire to reduce social segregation in state schools, but challenges remain for policy change. Authored by Carl Cullinane.
  • School Places: A Fair Choice? – This report gives an overview of the problems with the current school admissions system and examines the benefits and disadvantages of different proposals for reform. Authored by Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves and Anna Vignoles, the report looks at admissions strategies including random ballots, priority for disadvantaged students and banding tests.

This research comes alongside a consultation by the Sutton Trust to seek input from schools and other organisations on the best ways forward, and to help create concrete guidance to help schools make their admissions fairer.


Nearly half of school leaders don’t take the social profile of their community into account for admissions.


50% of school leaders think social segregation is a problem in state schools.


Over 3/4 of parents believe schools should have a fairer mix of pupils from different backgrounds.

Key Findings - Fairer School Admissions
  • Half of secondary school leaders feel that socio-economic segregation is a problem in the comprehensive school system. But 43% report that their schools take the socio-economic profile of their local community into little or no account when designing their admissions policies.
  • 38% of senior leaders say they take the socio-economic make-up of their local community into account when setting admissions policies. Schools who reported to do so are less likely to be socially selective in their admissions. 
  • Teachers are much more likely to perceive that they take a higher rate of disadvantaged pupils than a lower one. 74% of teachers in the most socially selective schools believe their intake has average or higher levels of disadvantage than the neighbourhoods they draw pupils from, despite admissions data showing they take substantially fewer.
  • 68% of teachers overall, and 72% of senior leaders, feel that reducing socio-economic segregation and improving social mix would have a positive effect in comprehensive schools. Potential positive impacts identified included increasing social cohesion and reducing the disadvantage attainment gap.
  • Almost two-thirds (62%) of secondary leaders were open to conducting a fair admissions review of their policies. Opinions on how best to tackle the problem are more mixed, with teachers split between random ballots, prioritisation of disadvantaged pupils, and banding tests.
  • 80% of parents believe state schools should have a mix of pupils from different backgrounds. 76% say that intakes should reflect the make-up of the local community, and 69% say high achieving schools should make an effort to take in pupils from less well-off backgrounds.
School Places: A Fair Choice?
  • Children from disadvantaged families attend schools with a much lower proportion of children achieving the benchmark of at least 5 A* to C grades, a gap of 6.9 percentage points,
  • While many see this gap arising from social class differences in engagement in the school choice system by parents, analysis of parental preference data shows that families eligible for free school meals, on average, make as many choices as richer families, are as likely to choose the local school, and take account of school quality in their choices.
  • More than parental preferences, it is the school allocation system that is the source of socio-economic gaps. When children are allocated to schools that are over-subscribed, the criteria they use often favour the wealthy. Those who can afford to live near to a good school has a much higher chance of getting in.
  • Alternative policies that could make a difference to social segregation include marginal ballots; priority for disadvantaged families; banding tests; and simplified faith criteria.

The Sutton Trust is making fairer school admissions one of its focuses for 2020 and plans to create more concrete guidance for schools on fairer admissions. We are seeking feedback from schools across England on their experiences with admissions. Suggested options for reform are: 

  • Marginal ballotsThis is where a substantial proportion of school places would be allocated as normal (as few as 50% up to as many as 90%), and the remaining places would be reserved for a random draw among un-accepted applicants, giving an equal chance of access, regardless of any other factors. 
  • Simple priority for disadvantaged families – Another option is to reserve a number of places for applicants from less well-off backgrounds, for example based on eligibility for the pupil premium. This is already legal and being done in some schools. 
  • Banding tests – Already operating in a number of schools, a school sets a test for all applicants, and admits equal numbers of pupils from each ‘band’ across the ability spectrum. As disadvantaged pupils are often lower on this spectrum, it may increase the number of such pupils admitted. 
  • Simplifying the conditions for demonstrating religious observance – Faith 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. Simplifying those criteria could help to make this process more straightforward and reduce barriers to entry.

We’re making school admissions a focus for 2020, and we need your help.