Poorer children less likely to get top school place, report finds

2 Mar 17

Disadvantaged children in England are significantly less likely to gain a place at the country’s top performing comprehensive schools, the Sutton Trust has found.

An analysis by the social mobility charity revealed that the best 500 non-selective state schools, in terms of GCSE results, take half as many disadvantaged pupils (9%) as the average state school (17%).

While half of this gap can be explained by these schools serving catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, the Selective Comprehensives 2017 report suggests the remaining disparity is due to social selection.

Around 85% of schools in the top 500 take a smaller proportion of disadvantaged pupils then live in their catchment area – and for about a quarter, this disparity was at least 5%. Faith schools, which make up a third of the top 500, were particularly socially selective, the report found, with an average gap of 6%.

The report noted that when ranked using the Department for Education’s new ‘Progress 8’ measure, the top schools are far less socially selective, with 15% of pupils classed as disadvantaged. Progress 8 assesses schools based on the progress pupils have made between the ages of 11 to 16.

Also, the Sutton Trust found that living in a catchment area of a top comprehensive is associated with a house price ‘premium’ of around 20%. This means a house in the catchment area of a top 500 comprehensive costs roughly £45,700 more than the average for the local authority.

However, there are some signs of improvement, inasmuch as the average proportion of disadvantaged pupils in the best schools is now up to 9.4% from 7.6% in 2013. 

Sir Peter Lampl, Sutton Trust chairman, noted that getting a place at a high attaining school was key to later success in life. “Yet the bottom line is your chances of doing that depends on your parents’ income and whether they can afford the extra £45,700 house premium to live in the catchment area,” he said.

“This is why we want to see more use of ballots – where a proportion of places is allocated randomly. Ballots would ensure that a wider mix of pupils would get into the best schools.”

The National Union of Teachers rejected the idea that school quality can be judged solely on the basis of GCSE or Progress 8 scores, but acknowledged the report flagged up “disturbing issues”.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, highlighted the finding that 80% of all secondary schools were now their own admission authorities, which was one of the factors contributing to “covert social selection”.

Courtney noted that if the government pushed forward with its plan to turn more schools into academies, the situation could get worse, as more schools become responsible for their own admissions.

He said the solution was to return the role of admissions authority for all schools in a local area to the local authority. “That way parents can be assured that the system for admission to school is fair and transparent and not influenced by the social status of their family.”

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