Report Overview

Selective Comprehensives 2017 examined high performing secondary schools in England, finding that England’s top comprehensive schools are, in practice, often highly socially selective. Building on this previous work, Selective Comprehensives Great Britain also considers schools in Scotland and Wales, looking at the proportion of pupils eligible for Free School Meals at the top fifth performing schools (top sixth in England), and comparing this with both the national average and with their local catchment area.

Findings show that in all three nations, despite having different admissions systems, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils at the best schools is around half of the average school, showing that their intakes are substantially different from the norm. This report looks across the three nations at how admissions processes can be improved, to make access to the top comprehensive schools fair for all students.

This research was conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research and Carl Cullinane, Head of Research at the Sutton Trust.


Top comprehensives across Britain take half the number of poorer pupils than the average school.


3/4 of top schools in Wales admit fewer disadvantaged pupils than live in their catchment area.


2/5 of top schools in Scotland have free school meal rates below 10%.

Key Findings
  • In all three nations, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils at the best schools was around half of the average, showing that their intakes are substantially different from the norm. In all three nations the average deprivation rank of all schools is near the 50th percentile (the middle), however the groups of top performing schools on average drew students from among the most advantaged areas in each country.
  • The reasons for these differences varied between nations. In England and Wales, about half of the disadvantage gap can be explained by the location of the best schools in more affluent areas. In England, the FSM rates in the catchment areas of top schools was 12.8%, 4.7 percentage points below the national average. In Wales it was 13.6%, 5.2 below the national average.
  • In Scotland however, where most children attend their nearest school, the FSM catchment rate for a top school was even lower at 9.1%, 7.2 percentage points beneath the national average. However, while the best Scottish schools are equally as unrepresentative as those in England and Wales, this is almost entirely as a result of their concentration in more affluent areas, and not due to social selectivity within their catchment areas.
  • The landscape of school admissions is different in the three countries, with distinctive factors influencing the admissions processes in schools. In England, as a result of the academisation process over the past two decades, 89% of top secondary schools can act as their own admissions authority. In Wales just 17% of top schools control their own admissions – at voluntary aided (faith) schools and foundation schools. Whereas in Scotland, all school admissions are controlled by local authorities. In England and Wales, FSM gaps are over twice as large in schools which control their own admissions, compared to local authority controlled admissions.


  • The top performing state schools in Scotland have an average of just 8.2% of pupils who are registered for free school meals (FSM), about half of the average rate for all schools nationally (16.3%). Almost two thirds (63%) of top performing schools have FSM rates below 10%, compared to 30% of all schools.
  • Due to a different admissions system compared to England and Wales, the vast majority of pupils attend their local school in Scotland. As a consequence, the average proportion of disadvantaged pupils attending these 70 top performing schools is very similar to the average levels of disadvantage in their catchment areas. While 57% of top performing schools take slightly fewer disadvantaged pupils than their catchment area, 39% take slightly more. High performing Scottish schools are thus quite reflective of their local area.
  • The average FSM rate in the catchment area of a top performing school is 9.1%. This suggests their lower FSM rate is almost entirely due to these schools being located in more affluent areas. Nearly four out of five top performing schools are ranked in the 40% most affluent areas of the country, based on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation measure.


  • There are large differences in the socio-economic make-up of the top performing comprehensive schools when compared to other secondary schools in Wales. These schools have on average just 9.6% of pupils who are eligible for free school meals. This is just over half of the average FSM rate for all schools in Wales (18.4%).
  • The average FSM rate in the catchment areas of top performing comprehensives is 13.6%. As in Scotland, four out of five top schools are located in the 40% most affluent areas (according to the Welsh Index of Deprivation). About half of the overall FSM gap is due to the location of these schools in more affluent areas.
  • Three quarters of top schools have intakes with lower proportions of FSM than their catchment areas, with 45% having a gap of five percentage points or more.
  • Top performing voluntary aided (faith) schools have a slightly higher average proportion of FSM pupils compared to other school types in the top performing group. However, the social composition of such schools is lower than in their catchment areas.
  • Language is a key issue in the Welsh education system. Welsh medium schools have on average a lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils (10.3%), when compared to bilingual (13.7%) and English medium (21.2%) schools. This is also reflected among the highest performing schools. Such schools also have a lower average proportion of FSM pupils compared to their catchment areas.


  1. The Scottish Government should work with local councils and school leaders of the top performing schools to increase the socio-economic diversity of their intake. In order to increase access to the best schools for disadvantaged pupils, councils and the Scottish Government must look at how the admissions processes could be changed. This could include:
    • Setting admissions targets for schools, particularly those in urban areas, for pupils registered for free school meals, to reflect the numbers in their catchment area.
    • When deciding catchment areas, particularly in urban areas, councils should look at drawing boundaries which consider the socio-economic diversity of the school intake.
  2. Deprived families should receive greater support in terms of transport. Given the geographical and social segregation of Scotland’s best schools, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds should be entitled to the costs of transport to attend a school outside of their immediate area.
  3. There should be a focus on improving standards at schools in deprived areas, so that pupils of all backgrounds have access to good schools. Given the level of social segregation across the school system and the emphasis on attending local schools, in order to facilitate social mobility, schools in deprived areas must be targeted for improvements. The introduction of the ‘Pupil Equity Fund’ (after the timescale examined in this report), similar to England’s pupil premium policy, is a positive move.
  4. In the longer term, the Scottish government should review how to broaden access to high performing schools. For example, consideration should be given to a system with fewer incentives for middle class parents to purchase homes in the catchment areas of attractive schools. Use of random allocation (ballots) could form a central part of this.


  1. The Welsh Government should work with the Regional Consortia, local authorities and school leaders of the top performing schools to increase the socio-economic diversity of their intake.
  2. Local authorities, particularly in urban areas, should consider implementing random allocation ballots for admission, to ensure a wider mix of pupils have access to the best schools. Reducing the emphasis on geographical proximity will allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive incentives for house buying and gaming the system. Ballots should be introduced alongside large catchment areas in order to maximise the potential socio-economic diversity of the catchment.
  3. Schools should give students entitled to free school meals priority in school applications when places are oversubscribed. The Welsh Schools Admissions Code should allow for and encourage the use of pupil premium or free school meals eligibility as an oversubscription criterion.
  4. Faith schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils. Faith schools are among the most socially selective of schools both in England and Wales. The admissions process for faith schools should be opened up so that their admissions are fairer, and reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.
  5. The Welsh Government, Regional Consortia, and Welsh language schools should work together to explore why pupils from low income families are less likely to attend Welsh language schools. Barriers to entry should be explored, and solutions found, including:
    • Priority for disadvantaged pupils as an oversubscription criterion
    • Better outreach to families and primary schools in more deprived areas of the locality
    • Better information provided to parents in deprived areas on the right to transport, and the benefits of such schools.
    As it is difficult to transition from an English medium primary to a Welsh medium secondary, the focus here should be on primary schools also.
  6. The Welsh Government’s Welsh Language Strategy states that disadvantage should not be a barrier to the Welsh language. It should seek to ensure that Welsh language education is available on an equitable basis to those from all socio-economic backgrounds.