The best schools in England fall into three main groups: independent schools, grammar schools, and top performing comprehensive state schools, which are in theory open to all (subject to certain conditions of geographical proximity or religious faith). However, this ideal of openness regardless of parental income or family background is far from the case in reality. England’s top comprehensive schools are, in practice, often highly socially selective, admitting much lower proportions of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than the average, and even than the profile of children in their immediate locality.
Written by Carl Cullinane, Jude Hillary, Joana Andrade and Stephen McNamara, this report considers whether significant policy and landscape changes in the last few years have had an impact on social selection and sorting in comprehensive schools. It also looks at what impact using new headline measures has on the composition of the top 500 comprehensives, and considers the implications of the new accountability system for comprehensive recruitment in the future.
- More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation (ballots) or banding to ensure that a wider mix of pupils has access to the most academically successful comprehensives. 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 can ensure a wider mix of pupils have the possibility of attending the best schools, and banding can help to secure school intakes reflecting a wide range of ability. With school accountability measurement changing to a ‘value added’ approach, this reduces the incentives for admissions policies biased towards high prior attainment, and provides an opportunity for a change of emphasis in this regard.
- Banding is most effective when a co-operative agreement can be reached between schools in an area. Local co-ordination could be achieved through a local admissions forum, or brokered through the local authority. Groups of schools should thus be encouraged to develop a shared approach to admissions.
- Ballots can be used in conjunction with catchment areas to improve the diversity of intake. One way of using random allocation, while making sure that those who live very close to schools are not unduly disadvantaged, could be to introduce both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas. However, using either banding or ballots in isolation may be more effective than using both in combination.
- Information availability and willingness to go the extra mile often has significant effects on access to better schools. The Government should find ways – working with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities – to make it easier for all parents to access a range of information to facilitate informed choice-making over their children’s education. This is particularly important with the implementation of the new accountability measures and imminent changes to GCSE grading.
- It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for Free School Meals.
- Faith Schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils. The government has mooted lifting the restrictions on the proportion of pupils new faith schools can select on the basis of religious faith (currently 50%). As our report demonstrates, faith schools are already among the most socially selective of schools, and lifting this restriction is likely to make them even more unrepresentative of their local areas, reducing the number of good school places available to pupils across the socio-economic spectrum. The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.