Skip to main content


Secondary SchoolSecondary schools must become more inclusive

By Kate Hilpern

State secondary schools that control their own admissions tend to be less representative of their communities, according to new research by The Sutton Trust and the National Foundation of Educational Research.

The report highlights that the concept of comprehensive education often doesn’t live up to its name, an issue that should concern us all.

Back in 2017, The Sutton Trust examined high performing state secondary schools in England and found that many are socially selective. This year’s study aimed to explore the picture in Scotland and Wales too. In doing so, the authors looked at the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) at the top fifth performing schools (top sixth in England) then compared this with both the national average and with the local catchment area. Across all three nations, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils at the best schools is around half – yes, half - of the average school.

And no, it’s not just because the best schools are in the wealthiest areas. Not entirely, anyway. In England and Wales, for example, just half of the disadvantage gap can be explained by the location of the best schools in more affluent areas. Meanwhile in Scotland, where most children attend the school nearest to them, the lack of representation of disadvantaged pupils (which is just as bad as in England and Wales) is almost entirely as a result of the schools being in richer areas.

Indeed, Scottish schools have no say over their own admissions as this is controlled entirely by local authorities, the result of which is that Scottish schools are generally reflective of the local area. Conversely, in England the academisation process over the past two decades means that a whopping 89 per cent of top secondary schools can now act as their own admissions authority. And although in Wales, just 17 per cent of top schools (only the faith and foundation schools) control their own admissions, FSM gaps are over twice as large in these schools compared to local authority controlled admissions – the same of which can be said for schools in England.

So what’s the solution? For Scotland, the report’s authors recommend that the Scottish government work with local councils and the top performing schools’ leaders to increase the socio-economic diversity of their intake – first, by setting admissions targets for schools (particularly those in urban areas) for pupils on free school meals, and second, by drawing up new boundaries for catchment areas.

Deprived families in Scotland should receiver greater transport support, suggest the authors, and there should be a focus on improving standards of schools in more deprived areas. Thinking further ahead, the Scottish government should broaden access to high performing schools by, for instance, giving fewer incentives for middle class parents to buy homes in the catchment areas of top schools – perhaps including a random allocation ballot admissions process, say the authors.

In Wales, the message is similar, with the authors recommending that the Welsh government work with the Regional Consortia, local authorities and the top performing schools’ leaders to broaden the socio-economic intake and that local authorities (again, especially in urban areas) should consider a ballot system for admissions, alongside larger catchment areas. Schools should give students on free school meals priority in school applications where places are oversubscribed, suggest the authors, and faith schools should look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils because these are the most socially selective of all schools.

Given that language is a key issue in the Welsh education system, the authors add that the Welsh government, Regional Consortia and Welsh language schools need to jointly explore why pupils from low income families are less likely to attend Welsh language schools and that barriers to entry should be explored and addressed.

A ballot admissions system (especially for urban areas) had already been suggested as a solution for the problem in England in the 2017 report, along with the idea of banding, both of which could reduce the emphasis on geographical proximity ‘buying’ you a place to the best schools. Perhaps, suggested the authors, some areas could incorporate ballots in conjunction with the concept of catchment areas – in other words, have ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas so that those who live very close to the school are not unduly disadvantaged.

The English government should work with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities to make it easier for all parents to make informed choices over their children’s education, added the authors. In fact, they said, it’s essential that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but their rights to free transport if their child is on free school meals. And as with the other nations, faith schools need to take a particularly hard look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils, according to the report.

Allowing fairer access to the best schools should be an educational priority. So we will be watching carefully to see if and when these visionary and workable suggestions are taken up. And we’d go one step further still by suggesting that since schools that control their own admissions are the most socially selective, then admissions should be returned to local authority control.



Informational Blog.Thanks for sharing this.


Commented on 29th May 2019

Please login to post a comment.

Please login to post a comment.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Special educational needs introduction

    Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need. Our SEN consultancy team advises on both special schools, and the mainstream schools with good SEN support, from reception through to the specialist colleges for 19+. Special Educational Needs Index

  • Uni in the USA... and beyond

    The British guide to great universities from Harvard to Hong Kong. We tell you how to choose, how to apply, how to pay.

  • The Good Schools Guide International

    Corona Virus As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, The Good Schools Guide International offers the following guidance:  Determine the global situation and that of individual countries on government mandated school closures by accessing the UNESCO information on this link:   For updates on the medical situation, go to  the World Health Organisation website at  If you wish to contact one of our GSGI listed schools to discover their current status or any plans for alternate learning strategies, please go to our database to find email and phone numbers for each school If your company makes you brexit, The GSGI should be your first…

  • Schools for children with performing arts talents

    At specialist music, dance or performing arts schools, the arts aren't optional extras. They’re intrinsic to the school curriculum. Students are expected to fit in high level training and hours of practice alongside a full academic provision. It's a lot to ask any child to take on, but for those with exceptional performing ability this kind of education can be transformative.

  • Finding a state grammar school

      There are currently around 163 state funded grammar schools located in 36 English local authorities, with around 167,000 pupils between them. There are a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland, but none in Wales or Scotland. Almost half of these are in what are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools. How to find a state grammar school Word of warning: not all selective grammar schools have…

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
 Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,000 schools
 Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

The Good Schools Guide manifesto for parents