Primary selection: examining educational inequality

15 Apr 16
New evidence suggests that many primary schools are being more socially selective than previously suspected

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents in England will learn whether or not they have secured a place for their children at their preferred primary school. For many, that will be their nearest primary; for others it may be faith-based schools. For some, there may not even be places as the demographic birth bulge continues to impact on school place planning at a time when all new schools have to be free schools.

But behind the excitement and despair of National Offer Day there is a second story at play. The issue is not just one of school choice but also of educational inequality. Primary schools, even more than secondary schools, are already the subject of social selection, with distance from schools even more important with fewer recruits each year. Selection by house price is an inevitable – and probably unchangeable – aspect of a system where we rightly place a premium on being able to walk to school and minimise the dreaded school run.

Yet that’s not the whole story. There has been a lot written about admissions policies to secondary schools. Debate still rages about grammar schools, while Sutton Trust research has shown that many successful comprehensives could be regarded as socially selective. Rather less has been said about primary school admissions policies, yet the choices made at age five can impact on social mobility as much – if not more – than those made at age eleven.

Until today, that is. In an important new analysis for the Sutton Trust, Dr Rebecca Allen and her colleagues at Education Datalab have looked in detail at the data for primary school admissions and have discovered over 1500 primaries – just under one in ten – where the difference in free school meal intake is more than nine percentage points below that of the communities from which they recruit.

The pattern seems strongest in some – though not all – London boroughs and in areas outside London where there are strong faith-based, particularly Catholic, state schools. There does seem to be a higher propensity for some academies and free schools – which can vary admissions policies from the local authority – to be among the schools that come through as more socially selective.

Importantly, Dr Allen has looked not just at where this social selection is taking place but its impact on standards. So, 13% of schools rated outstanding fit within her rigorous definition of social selectivity compared with 7% of those requiring improvement, and just 1% of those in the bottom 10% of performance in the tests at eleven are among the most socially selective, while 14% of those in the top 10% of performance are among top 10% most socially selective primaries.

So this matters to children’s life chances, especially those of poorer pupils where earlier Sutton Trust research has identified a 19 month school readiness gap. And while some education reformers dismiss admissions issues on the grounds that they’re ‘making all schools good’, the cold reality is that some primaries (just like some secondaries or universities) will always be better, and their intakes should reflect society better when the taxpayer is footing the bill.

But what do we do about it? Were we to take a coldly scientific position we might argue for a system of lotteries in primary schools, but while they have some merit as part of the admissions policies for popular urban secondaries, such an approach would be impractical in primary schools.

Instead, we need to look at how schools apply the admissions code. We make three suggestions today. The first is that schools – including faith schools – should consider prioritising pupil premium children ahead of others in their admissions criteria (they already do this for children in care). The second is that we need the Admissions Code to be properly enforced, particularly in parts of London where parents have been known to rent a flat close to a good school for the application process (and no longer). And finally, while we understand the wish of the Catholic and Anglican churches to maintain the ethos of their schools, we applaud those that have already decided to make a proportion of places available for those of other faiths – something required of new faith-based free schools.

The attention given to secondary school choices should not blind us from the impact of social selection in primaries. Today’s new report should help start a debate on how we ensure that the best state primaries are not the preserve of the better off.

Download the report | This article was first published via the Sutton Trust blog.

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