Poorer pupils less like to attend top comprehensive schools - study

Some of the country’s top performing comprehensive schools are more socially selective than the average grammar school, according to new research from the Sutton Trust.

In a new report, Selective Comprehensives 2024, the trust looked at the top 500 comprehensive schools by the Attainment 8 metric, and found that on average these schools take 40 per cent fewer pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) than the average comprehensive. While some of this gap could be explained by these schools often being located in more affluent areas, this was not the whole picture - 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 report found that among the sample of high performing schools examined, religious schools were the most socially exclusive. Almost all of the top 20 most socially selective schools are faith 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. Since 2016 the North East has overtaken London as the region with the highest proportion of FSM pupils, yet its high performing schools are now among the most socially selective in the country. In contrast, high performing London schools by the Attainment 8 measure were the least selective. The research found grammar schools had average free school meals rates 9.2 percentage points lower than their catchment areas - however more than 150 of the comprehensive schools the study looked at had a negative FSM gap greater than this.

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. They are also calling on school leaders to carry out fair access reviews, and take steps to change their admissions policies and remove financial barriers to attendance. 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 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.’

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented: ‘We support the Sutton Trust’s call for a review of the school admissions code and agree this should consider requiring all schools to prioritise children eligible for the pupil premium. It is one of the proposals in our blueprint for a fairer education system. We also welcome the Sutton Trust’s plans for a fairer admissions campaign. 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.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘The School Admissions Code requires admission arrangements to be fair, clear and objective, and no child should be unfairly disadvantaged. Admission authorities can choose to prioritise children eligible for the pupil premium when they are over their published admission number according to the need of their local area.’

Full report: http://tinyurl.com/34vyyfz6

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