From education to employment

Parents and teachers agree that school admissions need to be fairer

Half of secondary school heads (50%) say that social segregation is a problem in state schools, but many (43%) don’t consider the socio-economic make-up of their community when designing their own admissions policies. This is according to new research, published by the Sutton Trust ahead of school offer day, that includes polling of parents and teachers on their views on school admissions. 

For 15 years the Sutton Trust has analysed the social make-up of the top-performing comprehensives. Last year the Trust’s research found that the highest performing schools accept around half the rate of disadvantaged pupils as the national average. And over a quarter of high performing schools take in substantially fewer disadvantaged pupils than live in their catchment area. 


While half of the 1,506 teachers surveyed through the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) Teach Voice Omnibus believe that social segregation is a problem in the system as a whole, almost three-quarters (71%) of those in the most socially selective schools feel that their school has no problem with their intake, despite admissions data showing otherwise.


Over two-thirds (69%) of teachers overall, and almost three-quarters (71%) of senior leaders, think that reducing social segregation across the system would have a positive effect. Potential positive impacts include increasing social cohesion, closing the attainment gap, and improving teacher recruitment and retention.


A majority of secondary school leaders (62%) said they were open to reviewing their admissions policies to make them fairer, suggesting there is appetite within schools for change. 


Polling of parents by YouGov PLC also published in today’s report finds that an overwhelming majority is supportive of fairer admissions. Close to four-fifths (78%) of parents of school-age children believe that non-selective state schools should have a better and fairer mix of pupils from different backgrounds. Over two-thirds (64%) say high achieving schools should make an effort to take in pupils from less well-off backgrounds.


A second report by Professors Anna Vignoles and Simon Burgess, also published by the Sutton Trust today, gives an overview of the problems with the current a school admissions system and examines the benefits and disadvantaged of a number of proposals for reform.

These include: 

  • Ballots, where schools reserve a proportion of their places to be allocated by ballot.
  • Priority for disadvantaged families, where schools admit pupils based on their eligibility for free school meals.
  • Banding, where schools admit equal numbers of pupils from each attainment band.
  • Simplifying faith school admissions, tackling socio-economic gaps at faith schools by working with the various faith communities to assess barriers to entry and develop more straightforward criteria for parents.

The report suggests that a large proportion of parents across the socio-economic spectrum are using England’s school choice system to attempt to secure a preferred school for their child. They find that 65% of parents make more than one choice, and 27% make the maximum choices allowed (usually 3 or 6). However, they conclude that the school choice system is not working for everyone because it is the wealthy who can afford to buy or rent near high performing schools.


The Sutton Trust is making fairer school admissions one of its priorities for 2020 and plans to create more concrete guidance for schools on fairer admissions. From today, they’re seeking feedback from schools across England on their experiences with admissions. Schools are being asked to complete a short questionnaire that asks them about their experiences, barriers to change and potential options for reform. 


Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said:


“Our school system is highly socially segregated. Schools with well-off intakes sit alongside those with high levels of disadvantage. And low- and moderate-income families are less likely to access the highest performing schools. 


“It’s clear from today’s research that parents and teachers alike want to see a much fairer system, where schools better reflect their communities.  This would have far-reaching benefits, from better levels of overall attainment to improved teacher recruitment and retention.”


Professor Simon Burgess said:

“It’s clear that disadvantaged children are less likely to end up in a high-performing school; we illustrate that in our report. Why?  

“Our research has shown that rich and poor use the school choice system in the same way. The problem is that the core element of our school admissions system, allocating places by proximity to the school, favours the wealthy. Better off parents can essentially buy access to high-performing popular schools through where they can choose to live.

“In this report we review different options for reform, and believe that the use of marginal ballots offers a promising way forward.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“To ensure the same educational and training opportunities are available to all there needs to be a level playing field. Social segregation has lasting effects, letting down pupils and communities alike – often deep into adult life. School admission policies must be fair and decided at a local authority level.

“A decade of Conservative governments has led to a school system which is atomised, fractured and confusing. It is no wonder there has been a decline in teachers’ and senior leaders’ general understanding of the local and national picture. The legacy of academisation is not one of school improvement but of competition, leading to a marked imbalance during the admissions process.

“This disconnect is what leads to many schools with low numbers of disadvantaged pupils performing significantly better in league tables than their neighbours. The blind eye given to high exclusion rates in academies and free schools also needs addressing. Off-rolling has become commonplace, targeting specific groups of students at a far higher rate – predominantly those with behavioural, emotional and social needs, as our research with EPI shows.

“If the Government is serious about supporting the potential of all young people, then the sea-change must start with them. Returning powers to local authorities to open new community schools would be a start and is an idea popular with parents and staff. This welcome report shows there is clear support for a review of admission policy, which again would be overseen most effectively by local authorities. Through this approach a level of coherence and fairness can be restored to local provision.”

Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“Our system of school admissions lets down too many children, and means opportunities are determined by the wealth of a child’s parents.

“The government should make school admissions fairer and more consistent by taking these powers away from individual academies and giving them back to local authorities.”

 The Sutton Trust’s consultation on school admissions will launch on Thursday. Schools can take part here .  

The National Foundation for Educational Research  (NFER) is the leading independent provider of education research. The NFER runs Teacher Voice Omnibus Surveys three times a year, in the autumn, spring and summer terms. The robust survey achieves responses from over 1,000 practising teachers from schools in the publicly funded sector in England. The panel is representative of teachers from the full range of roles in primary and secondary schools, from head teachers to newly qualified class teachers. 1,506 practising teachers in non-selective schools in the publicly funded sector in England completed the survey online between 8th-13th November 2019.

Figures on parents are from YouGov Plc. Of a total sample size of 4,245 adults, questions were posed to 2,404 parents, of which 738 had children between 5-18 in full time education. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14-18th February 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Fairer School Admissions is authored by Professor Simon Burgess (University of Bristol), Ellen Greaves (University of Bristol) and Professor Anna Vignoles (University of Cambridge).

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