From education to employment

School appeals and waiting lists system increases social segregation; poorest families less likely to be successful

New research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) examines the school appeals and waiting lists system in England.

Drawing on newly available parental preferences data, and an overall dataset of over half a million pupils, the study examines how parents use these routes to secure a school place for their child.

The report is the first, detailed, analysis of the secondary school appeals and waiting lists system. Up until now, little has been known about the routes parents take if not initially offered their first choice of school. 

The schools that pupils attend have an impact on their life chances. Ensuring that there is fair access to school places in all parts of the country is crucial if the government’s objective of improving social mobility is to be met.

Families in the most affluent areas are twice as likely as those in the poorest to secure their top choice of school through the appeals and waiting lists system.

Families from some ethnic minority groups are more likely to miss out on their top choice compared to White British families.

Around 86,000 families in England were not offered their first choice school. Of these, around 1 in 7 (13,000) successfully appealed or used waiting lists to secure their top choice.

Government should deliver on its promise to review school admissions. Failure to reform may entrench inequality in the school system. 

Key findings

How many families use school appeals and waiting lists?

Thousands of parents in England appeal or use waiting lists each year in order to access their preferred school:

  • of the half a million (545,000) total school offers in 2016/17, around 459,000 (84 per cent) of these were offers to parents for their top choice of school.
  • Around 86,000 offers were made to parents that were not their first choice of school.

Of those families that were not offered their top choice of school:

  • 1 in 7 (13,000) families successfully appealed or used waiting lists to secure their top choice of school
  • 1 in 5 families (16,000) were successful in using these routes to secure any school that was higher on their list than the one they were originally offered.

Which groups are more successful at using the school appeals and waiting lists system?

The likelihood of getting into a first choice school through the appeals and waiting lists system varies considerably by family background, ethnicity, and pupil attainment at primary school:

  • For pupils in the least deprived areas, the odds of securing a first choice school through the appeals and waiting lists system are twice as high as those living in the most deprived areas.
  • Black and Asian pupils are less likely to get a place in their top choice of school through the appeals and waiting lists system than White British and Chinese pupils. Just 10 per cent of Black pupils and 12 per cent of Asian pupils get their first choice through this route, compared to 21 per cent of White British pupils and 17 per cent of Chinese pupils.
  • Disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium) are also more likely to miss out on their first choice through appeals and waiting lists, compared to non-disadvantaged pupils (13 vs 18 per cent).
  • Those with low attainment at the end of primary are less likely to access their first choice of secondary school after using these routes than those with high attainment (15 vs 23 per cent).
  • Even after controlling for factors such as a family’s location, poorer families and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are still less likely to secure their top choice of school through the appeals and waiting list system.

Characteristics of schools secured through appeals and waiting lists

The appeals and waiting lists system is a route for accessing schools with higher Ofsted ratings, and socially advantaged intakes: 

  • Around 95 per cent of those who successfully use the school appeals system to secure their first choice get into a good or outstanding school. This more than halves (to 42 per cent) for parents who are offered a school that is not on their preference list at all. This highlights the risk for parents of not using all their preferences, as they are more likely to receive a school place with a poor Ofsted rating.
  • First choice schools secured by parents through the appeals and waiting lists system are much more socially selective than other schools. These schools have fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than the average school initially offered (10 per cent compared to 18 per cent), and are also much less deprived than their local areas.

Does applying for fewer schools boost parents’ chances?

The number of schools parents apply to may have an impact on the school they are offered. Parents are better off applying for more schools, rather than fewer schools, as has often been suggested:   

  • Parents who omit slots on their school applications form could be more at risk of ending up with a school place they are not happy with. Those who miss out a slot when applying for schools end up being more likely to resort to appeals and waiting lists, compared to those that fill out all of their slots.
  • Overall, nearly three-quarters of parents in England do not fill in the maximum number of schools available to them. 

Policy recommendations

  • The government should deliver on its promise to review the school admissions system, which should include a detailed evaluation of how school appeals and waiting lists are used. If it wishes to address inequalities in school access, and reduce socio-economic gaps, then such a review is imperative.
  • Parents should have better information to navigate the admissions and appeals process. All families have the right to use the appeals and waiting lists system, though it is unclear whether all parents are aware of this. Parents should also be encouraged to use all their available preferences when applying to schools.
  • Support should be in place to ensure a level playing field for parents when appealing for a school place: the requirement to produce a written statement may be a barrier to some parents.

Commenting on the new research, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute, Emily Hunt, said: 

“This research shows that the school appeals and waiting lists system in England is reinforcing inequalities in education, with more deprived families and those from some ethnic minority backgrounds less likely to get into their preferred schools.

“If you are a family from the very poorest neighbourhood, then your odds of securing your top choice of school by appealing or using waiting lists is half that of a family from the most affluent neighbourhood. This is particularly concerning as parents use these routes to access schools with higher Ofsted ratings, and these schools also have socially advantaged intakes.

“It is clear from our research that the current appeals and waiting lists system is not consistent with the government’s aim of an education system that prioritises the most disadvantaged. The government should deliver on its recent promise to review the schools admissions system, or risk damaging social mobility.”

Rt. Hon David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said:

“The appeals and waiting list system should be giving poorer children a fair chance of getting into the best schools – but this research shows that it is failing to deliver equal access. A review of the schools admissions system is urgently needed.”

Lib Dem Education Spokesperson Layla Moran has called for the Government to review the schools admissions process following this report revealing the in-built inequality of the current system.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said:

“This report is damning and shows that the Conservatives are failing to promote equality of opportunity in our school system. I want to craft an education system that works for all families, especially the most vulnerable.

“Surely it can’t be right that families in more affluent areas are twice as likely as those in poor areas to secure their top choice of school? Parental choice being the driver of social mobility is a fallacy.

“The Tories have never especially cared about such blatant inequality. We must demand better, and that starts with calling on the Government to review the admissions process so that the poorest families are not left behind.”

This report follows the September 2018 EPI publication, Secondary school choice in England, which examined how parents initially choose secondary schools and whether this varies for different groups of parents in different parts of the country.

About The Education Policy Institute (EPI): An independent, impartial, and evidence-based research institute that promotes high quality education outcomes, regardless of social background. We achieve this through data-led analysis, innovative research and high-profile events. Find out more about our work here:

Related Articles