UK schools are among the most socially segregated in the developed world. Aside from the damaging effects that this has on social cohesion it also exacerbates the attainment gap between rich and poor. In many cases the best state schools admit a disproportionate number of affluent students. Recent research by the Sutton Trust found that the percentage of students on Free School Meals (FSM) at the top 500 secondary schools in the UK was just under half the national average. What is particularly distressing about this is that the current admissions system makes it easier for some schools to indirectly select by background.
The causes of social segregation in our school system are undoubtedly complex. Part of the problem is the postcode lottery. Good schools often have wealthy catchment areas. In fact, the evidence suggests that school quality has a strong effect on house prices: parents are willing to pay a significant premium (as much as 12%) to live in an area with an excellent school nearby. Without completely abandoning the significance given to proximity in school admissions this particular cause of school segregation is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.
Fortunately some of the other causes are much easier to address. Most significantly, giving the majority of schools discretion to set their own admissions criteria is a recipe for segregation. Two examples illustrate this point. First, faith schools have recently been in the spotlight for being unrepresentative of their local area. The Fair Admissions Campaign found that 69 of the 100 most socially selective comprehensive schools had faith-based admissions criteria. These criteria, it seems, are excluding students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Second, the Academies Commission reported earlier this year that despite the requirements of the Admissions Code (which all schools are required to follow) some schools are using criteria to select and exclude pupils. Although the focus was on academies, they acknowledged that there was strong evidence that other types of school were engaging in similar practices.
The fact that schools that are their own admissions authority (this includes academies, voluntary aided and foundation schools) are often indirectly selective should not be surprising. For one thing the system of school accountability provides schools with an incentive to have as affluent an intake as possible. Students on FSM are much less likely to get five good GCSE’s including Maths and English. Having fewer students on FSM therefore increases the chances that a school will perform better in the league tables. This is not just a theoretical problem – research has found a correlation between the number of students in a local authority being educated in schools that control their admissions and levels of FSM segregation.
The current system is clearly broken. Despite attempts to simplify it the Admissions Code remains complex. More importantly, it is simply not preventing schools from gentrifying their intake. The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) – which is tasked with policing the code – is intervening in some cases, but it is simply not realistic to expect it to effectively scrutinise the criteria being used by thousands of schools.
How do we fix the system? A good place to start would be to take control of admissions criteria away from individual schools. Local authorities should be responsible for setting general admission criteria for all schools in their area. They should then have to report annually on levels of segregation in schools in their area. This report would then be audited by a national body with powers to order changes if they find the criteria set by the local authority to be exacerbating segregation. For faith schools there is a radical solution and a less-radical solution. The radical solution would be to ban faith-based selection: these schools would be allowed to retain a religious ethos but would be unable to have a religiously homogenous intake. A less radical solution would be to keep faith-based selection but take steps to ensure that such selection is as class neutral as possible. Rebecca Allen has suggested that churches should agree at national level criteria for religious adherence that can then be used by schools to select pupils. This would prevent the use of criteria that clearly favour wealthy believers (those being used by the London Oratory School are a good example).
Giving local authorities control over admissions would clearly go against the recent trend of greater autonomy for schools. Nonetheless it could go a long way to addressing the absurdity of an education system that specifically directs funds (in the form of the pupil premium) to disadvantaged students to tackle the attainment gap whilst at the same time allowing admissions criteria to be used to ensure that these students are excluded from some of our best schools.