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.



No comments received for Secondary schools must become more inclusive

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

  • 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…

  • Schools for children with performing arts talents

    As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe or Charlotte Church standing. And sometimes, just sometimes, parental pride is justified.

  • The Good Schools Guide online subscription

    Find the best school for your child. One month subscription - £0.49 per day Three month subscription - £0.41 per day Six month subscription - £0.33 per day One year subscription - £0.29 per day Register for instant access to: ☑ Search for more than 30,000 schools in our parent friendly interactive directory. ☑ Create and save lists of schools via My Schools. ☑ Use our comparison grid to get exam results overview of schools you are interested in. ☑ Find comprehensive advice on state and independent schools, tutors and special needs. ☑ Catchment maps for English state schools by…

  • 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. Why study in the US? Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission... Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission who report that you're in good company: the US is the top destination for international students worldwide.  In fact, over 11,000 British students chose the States for their studies last year. Read more Scholarships for International Students Here's where you click to receive our giant pdf on US university scholarships for international students, covering how to find financial aid and how... Read more Can I afford it? America might proclaim…

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 >    In the news >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

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

Countdown to the first day of term


The Good Schools Guide 22nd edition is out now, and for a limited time get a one month free subscription with any purchase of The Good Schools Guide 22nd, or The Good Schools Guide to London.