Plans for schools in Brighton to prioritise places for the poorest children will boost social mobility by weakening the link between geography and admissions, sector leaders say.
Brighton & Hove City Council is consulting on proposals to give secondary school admissions priority to pupils on free school meals (FSM), after looked-after children. Both groups would get precedence over prospective pupils within a catchment area.
It would apply to all local authority schools, but there would be a cap based on the average number of disadvantaged pupils across the area.
Council chiefs believe the move will help to lessen “stubborn levels of inequality”.
Academies and any voluntary-aided schools are exempt.
Louis Hodge, the associate director for school system and performance of the Education Policy Institute, said the move “could give such pupils access to highly sought after schools they may not otherwise have had. It would also help weaken the link between geography and admissions that can often be a barrier to social mobility.”
Council papers show only looked-after children and those with “compelling medical or other exceptional reasons for attending the school” will have a higher level of priority.
University of Bristol professor Simon Burgess said having FSM so high up the list would give the changes “bite” and make them “effective”.
A study he led earlier this year found just 170, or 5 per cent of the roughly 3,250 secondaries in England, prioritised disadvantaged pupils, although schools have been allowed to do so since 2014. Many of those using the criteria are grammars, whose admissions also hinge on passing the 11-plus.
Brighton first to make council-wide changes
Burgess’s report said this meant only 42 schools “meaningfully” used the criteria.
Brighton is thought to be the first to make such changes council-wide.
Councillors voted to launch a public consultation on the changes earlier this week. It will take place over the next six weeks, with a meeting to consider the results scheduled for the new year.
Cllr Jacob Taylor, co-chair of Brighton’s children, families and schools committee, said the plans “could be a big step forward in terms of creating a more fair and equal city”.
“Brighton and Hove prides itself on being an inclusive city – but there are huge and stubborn levels of inequality. We believe our proposals would improve outcomes across the city as a whole.”
If approved, the plans will take effect in September 2025.
The FSM average across Brighton and Hove stands at 25 per cent, but is expected to rise to 28 per cent in 2025.
But council official have warned that the move could mean schools with high numbers of disadvantaged children could get a big pupil premium funding hit.
But they said that the risk of children from within catchment areas of an oversubscribed school being refused a place was “low” as pupil numbers fell, following national trends.
Authority documents noted if the proportion of FSM pupils applying for a place was higher than the city-wide average, and the school was oversubscribed, the council would use “random allocation as a tie-breaker” to determine who got in.
Providing information to parents ‘will be key’
The proportion of FSM pupils at Brighton’s community schools ranges from 16 to 36 per cent.
Rachelle Otulakowski, the head of Longhill High, which has the highest rate, said she was not concerned about the potential drop in funding.
“With a free school meals child comes money, but that money is to be spent on that child, so if I didn’t have that child, I wouldn’t need that money.”
“Most of my families whose choices may be broadened are likely to choose my school anyway.”
She was more concerned that if the proposal did not go through “some of the most vulnerable families in Brighton will be left yet again with no choice at all”.
Hodge added that the new system will also still “rely on families submitting preferences to those schools. Providing information to parents and changing behaviours will be key.”