The 2017 Sutton Trust Report into attainment levels in Comprehensive Schools in England discovered, probably to no-one’s great surprise, that the top performing Comprehensive schools were far more socially-selective than their lower-performing Comprehensive counterparts.
Overall, the top 500 Comprehensive schools had an intake of around 9% of pupils who were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), a rough-and-ready proxy measurement of both poverty and social class. The average FSM intake in English Comprehensive schools is around 17% of pupils.
In other words, higher-performing Comprehensive schools had a rate of FSM intake around half that of lower-performing schools.
The Trust estimated that while part of this discrepancy could be accounted for by higher attaining schools being located in catchment areas with lower numbers of poor families / children (i.e. in middle-class areas of the country), the remainder was due to various forms of social selection. Higher-performing schools, in other words, found a range of ways to admit lower levels of FSM children than their neighbourhood catchment areas suggested they should be admitting.
In addition, within the State Comprehensive sector clearly-defined groups of institutions – particularly academies, faith schools and single sex schools – were the worst offenders, with faith schools being among the most socially-selective – on average more than 3 times more selective than their non-faith counterparts.
Where performance is measured in terms of GCSE exam grades the Trust found high levels of social selection correlating with higher performance.
However, those schools who ranked highly on the DfE’s recently-introduced “Progress 8” measure (a form of value-added measurement of school attainment and progression) had FSM rates much closer to the national average (around 15%).
The latest Trust Report (2020) has extended this analysis to schools in Scotland and Wales and, equally-unsurprisingly, found a similarly skewed discrepancy between the highest and lowest performing schools.
As the Report concludes, “despite having different admissions systems, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils at the best schools is around half of the average school, showing that their intakes are substantially different from the norm”.