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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.