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Leading comprehensives ‘block out poorer pupils’

28 February 2010 1,681 views No Comment

Anushka Asthana, policy editor
The Observer,

More than one in six pupils are likely to miss out on their first choice of secondary school.
Hundreds of the best-performing comprehensive schools appear to be covertly selecting pupils from more affluent backgrounds and blocking those from more deprived families, it is revealed today. Research commissioned by the Sutton Trust paints a picture of a secondary education system deeply socially segregated and in which large numbers of schools attempt to skew their intake. The study’s early findings have been seen by the Observer in advance of national offer day tomorrow, when hundreds of thousands of parents will receive letters telling them at which secondary school their children have been allocated a place. More than one in six are likely to miss their first choice. The research will reignite the debate about admissions procedures. Brighton and Hove city council caused controversy in 2007 as the first authority to allocate places by random lottery. The government allows schools or councils to set their own criteria for admissions to oversubscribed schools, but it is illegal for state schools to select on the basis of academic ability or social status.
In 2008 ministers strengthened the “admissions code” for schools and made it statutory. Faith schools, in particular, have been accused of siphoning off middle-class pupils. The Sutton Trust research was carried out by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham, who analysed the backgrounds of about 600,000 children entering English secondary schools. They used the Income Deprivation Affecting Children index, which measures the proportion of children in an area that come from low-income households. The research identified the 100 most selective schools and found they took an average of 8.6% of children from poor backgrounds, despite the average proportion of poorer children in the areas being 20.1%. That means the schools would need to more than double the number of poor students to be reflective of their locality.
“This is a really big discrepancy, and it is clear that there are selection processes at work,” said Smithers. “We are supposed to have a comprehensive system that offers equal chances to all young people, but what this shows is that schools don’t always reflect the areas they are drawing children from.”
When the report is published in full next month it will reveal some of the methods used. Techniques identified in the past include asking parents visiting the school for information about their marital status, jobs, education background or children’s hobbies. Smithers said the results showed parents wanted to get their children into schools with pupils of a similar background, and schools wanted to “preserve their ethos”. The study included data from 2,679 English state schools for the academic year 2007-08. Grammar schools, which are allowed to select, and academies were not included, but faith schools were. Smithers said some religious schools were highly selective but others made it their “mission” to take in poorer pupils. The research finds that at least another 150 schools – on top of the 100 – were also highly selective. At the other end of the spectrum, 100 schools took the highest number of pupils from deprived backgrounds relative to the area – 38.9% compared to 30.3%. Of those schools, 71 were National Challenge schools, where fewer than 30% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Margaret Morrissey, from Parents Outloud, said: “There is a culture of fear where schools will risk anything to reach government targets.”

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