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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.

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