Disadvantaged children are suffering “geographical exclusion” from England’s best public schools because they cannot live near those with the best test scores, according to new research published by the University of Bristol.
The survey found that very few state high schools give priority to students who qualify for free school lunches, despite the government’s admissions rules being redesigned more than eight years ago, allowing them to do so.
Ellen Greaves, one of the authors, said: “Since schools that achieve the best student outcomes are more likely to be oversubscribed, they have the power to create entry systems to choose who attends.
“Sorting students according to where they live can mean that students from the poorest families are sent to the least effective schools. The best performing schools indirectly select students from neighboring wealthy families, effectively isolating the less fortunate and hindering social mobility.”
More than 800,000 families across England will find out on Wednesday whether their children have been offered a place at their first-preference school, as local authorities inform them of this year’s application results for Grade 7 entry.
For those who were denied a place on their first choice, the most common reason will be proximity, meaning that children who live closer to the school have also applied.
The Bristol team found that children from disadvantaged families struggled more to get a place in popular schools with good test results and good test scores.
The survey found that only 42 of more than 3,000 comprehensive schools and academies in England changed their admissions codes to ensure that children who received free school meals were given places before those who lived close to a school.
Instead, over 80% of secondary schools use catchment areas or proximity to school gates as the primary way of deciding who gets a place when a school is oversubscribed.
Ruth Maisey, head of education program at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “Prioritizing local students reinforces geographic inequalities by excluding those who cannot afford to live near the best performing schools.
“We hope this survey will encourage more schools to think creatively about how to use their admissions criteria to promote fairer access and opportunity.”
Revisions to the school admissions code in 2014 allowed schools to place eligibility for free school meals at the top of their list of “tie-breaker” criteria, giving them precedence over other criteria.
But in recent years, many schools have converted to academies, giving them more freedom in their admissions priorities rather than being decided by local authorities. The result was “a series of different and highly complicated processes that, in some cases, are not only difficult for parents to understand, but also serve to perpetuate social inequalities and divisions”, according to the Bristol academics.
Simon Burgess, lead author and professor of economics at Bristol, said: “Disadvantaged and advantaged families tend to be geographically concentrated, so school catchment areas tend to have a disproportionate number of fairly wealthy families or disadvantaged families.”
Burgess said he was surprised how few schools took advantage of the admissions code changes, as schools receive substantial financial incentives from the government to enroll eligible students for free school lunches.
While the use of geography has its advantages in fostering communities and ensuring students live close to their peers at school, Burgess said, “We have a compromise between the value society places on community and the value society places on social mobility. , giving children from families the opportunity to attend effective schools.
“But right now we are on one side of the scale and not doing much for social mobility except in a handful of schools.”
Paul Whiteman, secretary general of the National Association of Principals, said: “If the government is serious about improving social mobility, it must make school admissions a priority and make efforts to support all schools to provide a quality education, through funding and teacher recruitment, in order to improve fairness and access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.