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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


We must reform school admissions to ensure all pupils can access high-quality education

By Blog Editor, on 4 May 2023

By Jake Anders

In April, CEPEO launched New Opportunities: our evidence-based policy priorities for equalising opportunities. As part of an ongoing series, each week we are highlighting one of our priorities and the reasoning and evidence behind them. This week, we are focusing on school admissions, an area where we see huge disparities in access to high-performing schools by socio-economic status. In this blog post, we discuss two key reasons for this — the importance of distance to school in admission criteria, and the continuing existence of grammar school systems in parts of the UK.

Pupils from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend schools that get better results in national tests. In London, pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend, on average, schools where 59% of pupils achieve 5 passes or higher at GCSE, compared to 65% for non-FSM students. The gap is wider outside London at 8 percentage points between FSM and non-FSM eligible young people. This means that non-FSM students have access to schools where there is a higher chance of achieving academic success, which can have significant implications for their future prospects.

People sometimes suggest that this is because less advantaged families differ in their approach to choosing schools. But analysis of families’ preferences for secondary schools suggests this is not the main cause of the difference. Families of FSM pupils are only slightly more likely than more advantaged families to express a preference for only a single secondary school, or to make their closest school their first preference. This suggests little systematic difference in the degree of active engagement with school choice.

What, then, actually explains the difference? The disparity is driven by the fact that more affluent families are more likely to live in the proximity of good schools (including due to deliberately moving house to be near a good school), combined with admissions rules that prioritise distance in their decisions.

Schools typically apply admissions rules that consider the distance from prospective pupils’ homes. While this makes sense if all schools are equally good for all pupils, given the reality of disparities in school quality, it ends up limiting the ability of some pupils (disproportionately from less advantaged backgrounds) to access the best school to which they could reasonably travel. This means that disadvantaged families are limited in their ability to access schools with the characteristics they desire.

This is particularly important as parents and pupils seem to do a good job of picking schools for their children, if they are able to exercise that choice. Recent work has found that pupils who get into their first choice school do better than if they attend one of their lower-ranked schools, and this boost is not explained by any differences in overall effectiveness between the two schools.

Another feature of our school admissions system that is a major disruptor to fair access to high-quality schools for all pupils is grammar schools.

Grammar schools (which are allowed to select their students based on tests purporting to measure academic ability) are highly socially selective. In the areas where a grammar school operates there are stark differences in attendance at that grammar school by socioeconomic status. Just 6% of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds attend a grammar school. It is not until the 90th percentile of the socioeconomic status distribution that we see more than half of students attending a grammar school. The top percentile group, however, has a grammar school attendance rate of 80%.

And this is not just because of correlations between academic attainment and socioeconomic status. Pupils with the same level of attainment in their end of Key Stage 2 tests (taken in the same school year as grammar school entry tests are sat) are much more likely to go on to attend a grammar school if they are from advantaged backgrounds. This suggests that high-attaining young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to be taking the grammar school entry tests, or are doing less well in those tests than we would expect from other measures of their attainment. This latter factor could well be explained by the big differences in private tutoring by family income.

And if you live in a grammar school area then missing out on a place matters for long-term life chances. High-attaining pupils living in such areas who miss out are less likely to go on to higher education. If they do, their chances of attending a high-status university and achieving a good degree classification are lower compared to equivalent pupils who went to grammar schools.

Across both of these issues, reforms to school admissions could make a significant difference in equalising opportunities. Reducing the importance of distance to school and, hence, the link between family income and school attended could make a significant difference to life chances. Even better, requiring schools to prioritise applicants who are eligible for the pupil premium, or, more radically, introducing a degree of random assignment of pupils to schools within certain areas would help to level this aspect of the education playing field.

Jake Anders is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities, and Principal Investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO).

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