The increasing academisation of secondary schools has led to a raft of complex admissions processes that disadvantage the poorest families and perpetuate social division.

Research from the University of Bristol (Burgess et al, 2023) finds that only 5% of secondary schools prioritise disadvantaged pupils in their admissions policies, whereas the prioritisation of geographical location by the vast majority of schools creates significant scope for "indirect selection".

Published on Wednesday (March 1) – the day parents discovered which secondary school their children can attend – the report warns that entry rules are undermining social mobility.

The problem comes as more than 90% of around 3,250 secondary schools can now set their own admissions criteria. This includes foundation and voluntary-aided schools although the bulk is made up by the 80% of secondary schools that now hold academy status.

The report says that this has resulted in a raft of different, complicated processes that perpetuate social inequalities and division.

The report adds: “In the complex system of multiple school types and diverse admissions arrangements, parents in some areas lack the required information to make informed school choices.”

The system means that when families submit their preferred schools, oversubscribed ones – as most of the strongest performers are – can select pupils according to their own admissions criteria, subject to the government’s School Admissions Code (DfE, 2022).

The research has analysed these criteria and finds that geography is still the most common method used to determine admission to most oversubscribed schools.

As the report states: “This matters for social mobility, as some households are priced out of high performing schools due to higher property prices around the school.”

It also finds that despite explicit financial incentives associated with admitting disadvantage pupils (namely Pupil Premium funding), “only a small minority of schools give priority to pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium, and this priority is meaningful only in a few dozen schools”.

Schools are legally required to give priority to looked after children and SEN students with an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP).

After these two legal obligations, schools have an average of 3.5 further criteria, according to the report – some have just one, but others as many as seven.

Of these criteria, having a sibling already at the school was the most common (in 96% of school admission policies), while 88% use “geographical location, including catchment areas and distance or travel time from home to school”. Crucially, many schools also use distance as a tie-break between pupils in the same priority group.

Dr Ellen Greaves, an expert in the economics of school choice at the University of Bristol and the report’s co-author, explained: “As schools achieving the strongest outcomes for pupils are more likely to be oversubscribed, they have the power to devise entry systems to choose who attends.

“Picking pupils according to where they live can mean students from the poorest families are assigned to the least effective schools. Top-performing schools get to indirectly select pupils from affluent households in the vicinity, effectively freezing out those less fortunate and hindering social mobility.”

The DfE’s School Admissions Code states: “Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or SEN, and that other policies around school uniform or school trips do not discourage parents from applying for a place for their child.”

But the report states: “Geographical criteria are used by almost all schools and are near the top of the ordering of criteria where they are used. This means that the scope for indirect selection is large.

“In a system mainly constrained by geography, higher demand in the catchment area or close to popular schools leads to higher property prices which therefore reduces the chances of lower-income families to access the school. Whether school admissions arrangements should avoid this indirect form of discrimination is an interesting moral and political question.”

Other admissions criteria more likely to be aimed at achieving a balanced intake included random allocation or lottery, used by 3% of schools, banding by ability (also 3%) and explicitly prioritising disadvantaged students – which only occurs in 5% of secondary schools.

The report states: “Neither the additional funding allocated to schools for each eligible student nor any school’s social goal of improving diversity appears to be sufficient for schools to explicitly prioritise the admission of pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium.”

The research also identifies a small number of schools with “innovative” admissions arrangements that might inspire change – with free schools leading the way. These included random allocation of some places to applicants regardless of where they lived, test-based selection processes to ensure mixed-ability intake, and the use of the Pupil Premium as a priority for admissions.

Report co-author Professor Estelle Cantillon, from the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, said: “Although these cases were relatively isolated, they illustrate that the most successful schools can introduce systems which favour pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and further social progress. Hopefully these will be championed as best practice and act as a catalyst for future positive policy change in an area which through decentralisation has become geared to benefit the more fortunate.”

Ruth Maisey, programme head of education at Nuffield Foundation – which funded the research – said: “This research highlights the very real barrier that pupils from lower-income households face when applying for their secondary school place. Prioritising local pupils reinforces geographic inequalities by excluding those who can’t afford to live close to the top-performing schools. We hope this research encourages more schools to think creatively about using their admissions criteria to promote opportunity and fairer access.”

The report was published on the day of the year when families found out which secondary school their children can attend in September. Given the rising pupil population at secondary level – something that is expected to continue through to 2025 – it is likely there will be increasing pressure on secondary school places.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This pressure will be most keenly felt by schools that are already over-subscribed. In most cases these are schools located within affluent areas that have an outstanding or good Ofsted rating.

“There are well-known issues around people moving into catchment areas to get their child into these schools. This results in other families effectively being priced out and a review of the School Admissions Code is needed to explore how to provide better access to school places for disadvantaged children.

This should examine the impact of requiring schools to prioritise all children eligible for the Pupil Premium, or in persistent poverty, in a similar way to how they already prioritise looked after and previously looked after children.”