Latest Sutton Trust report suggests best state schools are socially selective


Most Schools have control of their own admissions process, though they have to abide by a national admissions “code”. Significantly, selection on the basis of aptitude is permitted in certain circumstances. (see below) Guidance on this is set out in chapter 2 of the Schools Admissions Code.

Admission authorities for maintained schools must comply with the Code. Local authorities are the admission authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools, unless the function has been delegated to the school governing body. For foundation schools (including trust schools), voluntary-aided schools and academies, governing bodies are the admission authority.

Grammar schools, of course, all 164 of them, which are state schools, have long been able to select their pupils. Pupils must sit an 11 plus exam. Around 5% of all pupils in state secondary schools are currently educated  in grammar schools .

So what about selection by aptitude? There are two permitted forms of selection by aptitude. Under section 100 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, where the school used such selection in 1997-98 and has continued to use it since then without significant changes. And under section 102, where schools may select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of aptitude in their specialist area(s) provided that the admission arrangements do not involve any test of ability or any test designed to elicit the pupil’s aptitude for other subjects.

The designated subjects where specialist schools are able to select by aptitude are:

 physical education or sport, or one or more sports;

 the performing arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 the visual arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 modern foreign languages, or any such language;

 design and technology, and ICT (but only schools that already selected for those subjects before the 2008 school year may continue to do so).18

But, in  practice, very few specialist schools select pupils on the basis of aptitude for the specialism. And specialist schools are  for the most part not really specialist in a meaningful sense-just look at the qualifications their pupils take and the number of ‘specialist’ teachers they employ for their chosen  ‘specialism’.

There has long been a perception that best performing schools are involved in covert selection. The incentive to select pupils is clear. The brighter your pupils and the wealthier and better educated  their  parents ,the  higher  the school is likely to be  in  the league tables  .So there is a strong incentive for schools to engage in subtle forms of selection. This was highlighted recently by an investigation by the Academies commission led by Christine Gilbert, the former head of Ofsted. The commission said it had heard examples of some academies “willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership”. It said it had received numerous submissions suggesting that “academies are finding methods to select covertly”, such as holding social events for prospective parents or asking them to fill in lengthy forms when applying for a place.

“Such practices can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete the [form] in ways that will increase their child’s chances,” the report said .

It warned  that as more schools  become academies, in charge of their own admissions, “there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further”.

The Sutton Trust in its latest research report claims that   ‘England’s highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are significantly more socially selective than the average state school nationally and other schools in their own localities’. It continues ‘ The average rate of free school meal (FSM) eligibility and uptake at the top 500 comprehensives – all have more than 69% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs in 2012 – is just below half the national average figure, 7.6% compared to 16.5%, and 15.2% in their respective local authorities. There are nearly 3,000 comprehensive schools nationally. FSM is a measure of the overall social selectivity of a school.

95 per cent of the top 500 comprehensives have a smaller proportion of their pupils on free school meals than their local areas, including almost two thirds (64%) which are unrepresentative of their local authority area, with gaps of five or more percentage points.’

The report also shows that there is a big difference in the social background of pupils attending good schools that have converted to academy status (‘converter academies’) and those academies that have been established with sponsors to improve results (‘sponsored academies’). The 186 converter academies within the top 500 have significantly lower FSM intakes, averaging just 5.8%. Schools in the top 500 are also more likely to be faith schools or single sex schools than the national average.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Who gets admitted to these schools matters because they are the ones most likely to attend the best universities and most likely to succeed in the top professions. They open the door to social mobility. The schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection. But they are exercising a form of social selection.

Lampl continued:“The bottom line is, how good a school you go to depends on your parents’ income. We have one of the most socially segregated school systems in the developed world, an outlier with only 4 out of 29 advanced countries having a worse record, according to the OECD last year.”

The solution, the Sutton Trust believes, lies in the use a system of ballots, particularly in urban areas, so a proportion of places would be  allocated randomly – or by applying  banding across the range of abilities to achieve a genuinely balanced intake.

Fair-banding admissions schemes are often seen as a way of breaking the middle-class dominance in the best-performing state secondaries since they are thought to prevent affluent parents from monopolising places by paying a premium to live in their catchment areas

Banding works in different ways    But ,typically ,11 year-olds, applying for school places, sit an IQ-based “attainment test” and are then divided into five to nine ability groups. The same number of children from each ability group are then given places at the school.(Dunraven school in Streatham  introduced this type of banding in the 1990s- It puts children in five different bands and gives priority to those children who are in care or in foster care. )

Policy makers believe in the right for parents to choose a school for their child and that this is an important principle informing policy. But,with one vital caveat. It must be made to work in a way that is transparent and fair for all families, not just the wealthy. This is where it can become problematic. Given the strong incentives for schools to select and the difficulty in policing admissions policies, and admissions by property price, some believe that there should be ballots .Others, including the IPPR, think that it might  be better for admissions to be administered by an impartial body such as a local school commissioner. This, the IPPR feels, would prevent accusations of unfair play, save  headteachers from endless rounds of appeals, and free schools up to focus on the core business of teaching and learning


The Sunday Times pointed out that only 5.7% of pupils at the London  (Catholic) Oratory in Fulham, where two of Tony Blair’s sons were  educated, and where Nick Clegg MP, the deputy PM, is sending his son,  are eligible for free school meals, a marker of low family income and of a school’s social mix. The average for England’s 3,000 state secondaries is- 16.5%.


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