The Sutton Trust has undertaken important new research that shows poorer pupils are less likely to attend top-performing comprehensive schools even if they live in their catchment areas. The charity calls for a review of the school admissions code.

We already know that grammar schools are highly socially selective, with much lower proportions of disadvantaged pupils than neighbouring non-selective schools. This new research highlights the fact that some “non-selective” secondary schools, many of them faith schools, use admission rules and other subtle means to admit wealthier pupils rather than local pupils who are eligible for Free School Meals.

The research looked at ‘top performing’ schools based on pupil progress and attainment. It found that the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in schools with top progress 8 scores was 4.3 percentage points lower than the proportion across their catchment areas, and 5.8 percentage points lower for schools with top attainment 8 scores.  The Sutton Trust said a third of the gap was attributable to the schools’ location in affluent areas, with higher house prices posing a “significant barrier to the families of disadvantaged children who are far less likely to be able to afford to live in these catchment areas”.

The report claims that living near a top school was “not enough”. Two thirds of the gap was explained by “unequal access within local areas. These schools have 30 per cent fewer pupils eligible for FSM than live in the catchment areas they draw from, due to a combination of factors including parent choices and schools’ often complicated admissions criteria.”

The Sutton Trust said government should review admissions code policies to “require inclusion of pupil premium eligibility in schools’ oversubscription criteria, as well as including an assessment of fair access in Ofsted inspections.

Government should “also address financial barriers such as transport and uniform costs, which can be considerable”.  School leaders should carry out fair access reviews and change their admissions policies.

Comprehensive Future has long campaigned for fair school admissions. The vast majority of schools serve their communities well and offer admission policies designed to admit local pupils, but more needs to be done to police schools which use covert selection to put off the ‘wrong’ sort of pupil. Let’s hope that a new government will take a look at this problem and review selective admissions as well as admissions more generally.