Social justice and schools: Admissions

Written by: David Anderson | Published:
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In a seven-part series, teacher and school leader David Anderson considers how schools can be a key driver for social justice and how we can make our education system more equitable. In part five, he looks at the problems with admissions – another mechanism by which the playing field is kept woefully uneven



SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice



Let us dive straight in. Just from the people known to me, I can list the following approaches to getting a child into the secondary school of choice:

  • Attended church every Sunday in order to gain a place at a Church of England school despite admitting not being religious.
  • Entered their child to sit an entrance exam for a place at a Church of England school, competing alongside 250 children for 12 available places.
  • Paid for private tuition for all their children for several months to prepare for 11-plus exam at a cost of £25 per hour.
  • Bought a house within the catchment of the “best” school in a town, despite the house not being big enough for the family to live in.

I am sure you can come up with your own lists of the “games parents play” or the expensive hoops that more advantaged parents jump through to gain a secondary school. I must be clear: I am not pointing a finger at parents – it is the system that is unfair, not the actions of individuals.


Overt selection

Although only five per cent of students in England attend the 160 or so grammar schools, research suggests that only about 28 per cent of state schools are not affected by the presence of a selective school (Coe et al, 2008).

So, selection, and its impact on school intake, is a big issue for many comprehensives in England, whether you live in Bucks, Kent, Lincolnshire (the three counties that have still have selective systems) or not, since there are further pockets of selective schools scattered all over England.

Michael Rosen, quoted on the home page of the Comprehensive Futures campaign, which fights for fair school admissions and an end to the 11-plus, states: “Grammar schools are a way of preventing a majority of children from going to a certain kind of school. These schools don’t help society to be fairer or better. Just the opposite: a grammar school system forces us all into being one-mark passes or failures at the age of 11 when in reality we’re all complex mixtures of abilities, strengths and weaknesses.”


Covert or social selection?

All state schools are required to publish their admission policies and these vary from being highly selective, such as with grammar schools, to all-inclusive. Some selection, like with grammars, is overt and obvious, but there are other types of selection that are covert, and this leads to inequity in the system.

I will use a faith academy as an example. The school assigns 120 out of 140 or so of its year 7 places according to the following admission criteria: 70-odd places for “worshipping members of the Church of England or Methodist Church” then the rest for children of staff, followed by siblings then other faiths and finally, proximity to the school. The remaining 15 students are selected by an academic or music aptitude test.

This school effectively “top skims” children with academic ability, musical talent and aspirational parents from a very wide catchment area and in the eyes of many parents is the next best thing to a private or grammar school education – though you would not necessarily know it from their admission policy.

In terms of disadvantage, the faith school has nine per cent compared to a city average of 30 per cent, so despite apparently selecting students mainly on the basis of faith, the level of disadvantage within the school population is only one-third that of the city average.

To further support the suggestion of faith schools as a method of social selection, Peter Mortimore in Education Under Siege (2014) says “there is a wealth of evidence pointing to the more economically advantaged pupil composition of faith schools”.

He cites research showing that three-quarters of Catholic schools have a more affluent mix of pupils than other schools in the local area, and that faith schools have a much-reduced proportion of children with free school meals than the local average.

And research by the Sutton Trust (2020) found further differences in admissions and in-take – namely that the highest ranked schools accept around half the average rate of disadvantaged pupils as the national average. They conclude that this contributes to a socially segregated system.


Change is needed

So, what might a more equitable admissions system look like?

Mortimore (2014) suggests creating balanced schools in which there is “an intake of pupils from different family backgrounds, advantaged and disadvantaged; those who find learning easy and those who find learning hard”.

He argues that “in a fair system, each school would have broadly the same proportions of different kinds of pupils. But to achieve this situation, parents would need to give up the ‘notional choice’ of a school for their child”.

This would be a hard sell in England, but it doesn’t mean that it is not worth arguing for. One way of encouraging people that “allocation” of pupils to schools by, for example, their local authority, would be that they no longer have to go through the often-traumatic process of finding a suitable school for their child. Ideally, one would hope that all students could attend their local school and that all schools are “good” schools, as I laid out in the first part of this series.

Various methods of school place allocation have been suggested for situations where the local population does not lead to an appropriate mix of students, for example in areas of high population density. Banding systems, where students are distributed evenly among local schools, is one possibility.

Bussing students between areas to ensure a balance is another potential solution. It sounds unpalatable, but compared with the vast distances travelled by many students to “escape” their local, lower status school, it may be more attractive. Finally, random allocation could be used, but only if it achieves the aim of creating schools that have a balance of students of all backgrounds and abilities.


A long way to go

For our schools to be equitable in the way they admit students, there is no room for independent schools, which largely select by ability to pay. There is no room for grammar schools or other forms of selection. And there is no room for faith schools which select by religion and frequency of worship.

As Benn and Downs say in The Truth About Our Schools (2016), “comprehensive education sends out an important message about children being educated together, that regardless of class, faith, ethnic background and prior attainment all children should walk through the same gates to school”.

Benn goes on to say in 2018’s Life Lessons: “It is not right that some schools be allowed, in effect, to pick and choose who they will educate. All schools should have the same rights, the same responsibilities and the same level of autonomy.”

There is so much inequity built into every stage of our current education system that it sometimes seems impossible to imagine us ever moving towards a fairer school system. However, we live in unprecedented times and we must not lose sight of what is actually best for all the students in our communities.

So, what can we as teachers and school leaders do to really make a difference? I attended a webinar earlier this year hosted by Comprehensive Futures on the subject of grammar schools. Their conclusion, with which I agree, is that no change will come without political pressure. This pressure will come from direct action, from groups of individuals campaigning, lobbying MPs and unions and keeping these issues of inequity in education high on the agenda. Sadly there seems little political appetite currently for such change, but that is no excuse for inaction.

Teachers could and should be a vital part of this political pressure for change. I strongly believe that we should be questioning the status quo and seeking out alternatives.

To move forward on any of the issues I have discussed will be fraught with difficulties, but to do nothing should not be an option. Now may be the time to seize the opportunity for change, however small – any progress is better than no progress. As educational campaigner Fiona Millar said recently “the inequalities in our society start with education, and this is our ‘build back better’ moment”.

In my next article, I will turn to assessment and how our high-stakes standardised tests and the subsequent publicised outcomes maintain inequity in our system.


  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland. The remaining articles in this series will publish in November.


Further information & resources


Further reading

  • Life Lessons, Melissa Benn, 2018
  • Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg, 2015
  • Education Under Siege, Peter Mortimore, 2014
  • Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan, 2016
  • Engines of Privilege, Francis Green and David Kynaston, 2019.
  • Miseducation, Diane Reay, 2017
  • Reframing Education, Mike Murray, 2019
  • The Truth about Our Schools, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, 2016
  • Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik, 2018


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