NEW research published by the Sutton Trust has found that there are 155 secondary comprehensives in England that are more socially selective than the average grammar school.

The Trust’s Selective Comprehensives 2024 report finds that, on average, pupils who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) are less likely to attend a top performing comprehensive even if there is one in their area. This has not improved since 2016 and there are some indications that the situation has become worse.

Looking at the top 500 schools by the Attainment 8 metric, on average these schools take 40 per cent fewer pupils eligible for FSM than the average comprehensive. A third of this gap is attributable to the location of these schools in more affluent areas. Higher house prices in these areas pose 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.

However, living near a top performing school is not enough, with two thirds of the gap explained by unequal access within local areas. These schools have 30 per cent fewer pupils eligible for FSM than live in the catchment areas from which they draw, due to a combination of factors including parental choices and the schools’ often complicated admissions criteria.

Religious schools are the most socially exclusive, as well as being over-represented in the group of top schools. Almost all the top 20 most socially selective schools are faith schools. Catholic schools continue to be the least representative of their catchments among top performing schools, followed by non-Christian religions, then by Anglican schools.

The research also found that levels of social selection differed across the country, with the lowest number of top schools concentrated in some parts of the country with the highest FSM rates. The North East has the most socially selective top comprehensives in the country. Since 2016 it has overtaken London as the region with the highest proportion of FSM pupils, yet their high performing schools are also the most selective. In contrast, high performing London schools by the Attainment 8 measure were the least selective.

Since 2016, the number of secondary schools under local authority control has halved, from 20 per cent to 10 per cent, with the vast majority of schools now controlling their own admissions. Among top performing schools, the proportion under local authority control for their admissions, which have been consistently shown to be less socially selective, has also dropped, while the proportion of converter academies, which are more socially selective, has increased.

To address these issues, the Sutton Trust says the 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. It says the government should also address financial barriers such as transport and uniform costs, which can be considerable.

The Sutton Trust is also calling on school leaders to carry out fair access reviews, and to take steps in changing their admissions policies, as well as removing financial barriers to attendance at their school. The Trust will soon be launching a Fairer Admissions Campaign to encourage and support schools across the country to review and change their admissions policies.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, 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.

“The government should review the school admissions code to ensure all state schools take a mix of pupils which reflects their local community, and provide disadvantaged pupils with a fair chance to access top performing schools. Alongside this, extra funding and resources, particularly targeted at the most deprived areas, will help to raise the quality of education where it’s most needed.”

* Read the report here.

* Source: The Sutton Trust