Poorer pupils are less likely to attend top-performing comprehensive schools even if they live in their catchment areas, a new report suggests, prompting calls for a review of the school admissions code.
A study by the Sutton Trust, based on national data analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research, found there were 155 secondary comprehensives in England that are more “socially selective” than the average grammar school.
The 500 comprehensive schools with the highest progress scores had a lower proportion of disadvantaged pupils (17.1 per cent) than those with lower results (22 per cent), the research found.
Schools with the highest attainment scores admitted even fewer free school meals children (13.3 per cent).
The proportion of disadvantaged pupils in schools with top progress 8 scores was 4.3 percentage points lower than the proportion across their catchment areas, and 5.8 percentage points lower for schools with top attainment 8 scores.
Living near top schools ‘not enough’
The Sutton Trust said a third of the gap was attributable to the schools’ location in affluent areas, with higher house prices posing a “significant barrier to the families of disadvantaged children who are far less likely to be able to afford to live in these catchment areas”.
But living near a top school was “not enough”. Two thirds of the gap was explained by “unequal access within local areas”, researchers found.
“These schools have 30 per cent fewer pupils eligible for FSM than live in the catchment areas they draw from, due to a combination of factors including parent choices and schools’ often complicated admissions criteria.”
The Sutton Trust said government should review admissions code policies to “require inclusion of pupil premium eligibility in schools’ oversubscription criteria, as well as including an assessment of fair access in Ofsted inspections.
Government should “also address financial barriers such as transport and uniform costs, which can be considerable”. School leaders should carry out fair access reviews and change their admissions policies.
Sir Peter Lampl, the charity’s founder, said: “The levels of social segregation across the school system are unacceptable.
“The poorest parts of the country are hit by a double whammy of having the fewest top comprehensive schools, which are also the most socially selective. This is deeply concerning. We need to urgently address this problem to create a more balanced system and raise the quality of all schools.”
Some comps less inclusive than grammars
The research found grammar schools had average free school meals rates 9.2 percentage points lower than their catchment areas. This shows how disadvantaged pupils are “systematically excluded from many of the highest attaining schools in the country”.
However, the Sutton Trust said it was “also notable that more than 150 comprehensive schools have a negative FSM gap greater than -9.2 which means that they are less representative of their catchment areas than the average grammar school”.
The research also found that schools that choose to become academies tend to be more socially selective than those forced to convert.
It found converter academies – those that opt to join a trust – had an average free school meals rate 2.6 percentage points below that of their catchment area.
The same was true to a lesser extent for voluntary-aided and foundation schools (2.1 percentage points), free schools (1.7 percentage points) and community and voluntary controlled schools (1 percentage point).
On the other hand, sponsored academies, which are forced to convert after being rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, had an average FSM rate 3 percentage points higher than the areas they served.
Religious schools also remain less inclusive, with an FSM rate 4.3 percentage points below that of their catchments, compared to 0.3 percentage points among non-religious schools.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, backed calls for a review of the school admissions code “and agree this should consider requiring all schools to prioritise children eligible for the pupil premium”.
“But fairer access is not just about admissions practices. It is also about ensuring that all schools have the support and resources they need to provide a high-quality education wherever they are and whatever their context.”