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Make pupil admissions fairer, says Sutton Trust

17 March 2017


School-yard: Dr Sentamu visits Millthorpe School, York, on Thursday of last week

School-yard: Dr Sentamu visits Millthorpe School, York, on Thursday of last week

FAITH schools should look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils and make admissions fairer, to reflect their local population, a new report recommends.

Select Comprehensives 2017, a report by the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to improving social mobility through education, is a study of the top 500 comprehensive schools in the country, as measured by GCSE attainment. It argues that they are “highly socially selective”, pointing to the fact that, on average, 9.4 per cent of their pupils are eligible for free school meals (FSM), compared with 17.2 per cent nationally.

Faith schools — which make up a third of the top 500 — are “among the most socially selective category of top school”, it argues. On average, faith schools in the top 500 had six per cent fewer pupils on FSM than existed in their catchment area. For Anglican schools, it was a 5.7-per-cent gap.

“Faith schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils,” the report recommends. “The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said that his team would “question the concept of ‘social selection’ as applied by the Sutton Trust. Church schools do not select pupils on the basis of their social background. We are fundamentally committed to providing schools in which every pupil should be enabled to flourish, irrespective of their background.”

The Sutton Trust refers to “covert selection”, in which setting catchment areas favour those who can afford houses near the school. It concludes that, across the top 500, about half the FSM gap is due to the location of high-attaining schools in catchment areas with lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, but the rest is due to social selection in admissions. It recommends that, alongside catchment areas, more schools use ballots, where a proportion of places are allocated randomly; or banding across a range of abilities.

Mr Genders said that, in cases where church schools were over-subscribed, “we are committed to understanding better whether pressure for places can inadvertently disadvantage some groups.” He pointed out that “faith schools” as defined in the report included a “wide variety” of schools with “vastly different admissions criteria”, and that the majority of C of E schools applied “no faith-based criteria whatsoever”.

The report raises concerns about the lifting of the cap on the proportion of pupils that schools are allowed to select on the basis of religious faith. Mr Genders has said that C of E schools will not be taking advantage of this to increase selection on faith criteria (News, 11 November). “We are committed to understanding the social make-up of schools better, and are examining possibilities for research in a similar area,” he said.

One of the 500 top performing schools is the St Marylebone Academy in central London where 93 per cent of pupils gain at least five GCSEs at A*-C grades. Nearly 40 per cent of its 1079 pupils receive FSM, and the same proportion do not have English as their first language. The head teacher, Kat Pugh, says: “Our admissions policy is designed to ensure we have a comprehensive intake.”

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