Secondary schools in London:

Admissions criteria and cream skimming

By Anne West, Audrey Hind & Hazel Pennell

Centre for Educational Research

Department of Social Policy

London School of Economics and Political Science

September 2003 
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Executive Summary

• This report focuses on admissions criteria used by London secondary schools and the extent to which the criteria allow the opportunity for cream skimming. It also provides some examples of ways in which individual admission authorities ‘select in’ or ‘select out’ particular types of pupils via these criteria and other admissions policies and practices.

• A high proportion of schools reported giving priority to siblings and to distance.

• Only a minority of schools (5%) selected a proportion of pupils on the basis of ability/aptitude in a particular subject(s). More foundation and voluntary-aided schools than community or voluntary-controlled schools selected pupils on this basis.

• Secondary schools are permitted to select pupils in order to gain a balanced intake of pupils based on their ability; this is commonly termed ‘banding’. Overall, 20% of London secondary schools used some form of banding. This policy is a legacy of the former Inner London Education Authority. However, the extent to which banding is used to obtain an academically balanced intake in schools that are their own admission authority is questioned.

• The Code of Practice on School Admissions makes specific reference to admission authorities using criteria giving priority to certain categories of pupils, such as the children of former pupils/employees, stating that these should not be used as they may contravene legislation.

• We found that 13% of secondary schools were giving priority to the children of employees/governors; more voluntary-aided and foundation schools than community or voluntary-controlled schools used such criteria.

• One in ten secondary schools gave preference to the children of former pupils. More voluntary-aided and foundation than community or voluntary-controlled schools gave priority to the children of former pupils.

• Over seven out of ten secondary schools had an admissions criterion relating to the child’s medical or social needs. However, community and voluntary-controlled schools were more likely to use this as a criterion than were voluntary-aided or foundation schools.

• A significant minority (44%) of secondary schools’ admissions criteria made reference to pupils with special educational needs. Again, these were predominantly community/voluntary-controlled schools.

• Overall, 27% of schools had admissions criteria related to religion; the vast majority of voluntary-aided schools had such criteria. A minority of voluntary-aided schools made explicit reference in their admissions criteria to pupils from other faiths or another ‘World Faith’.

• The most common admissions practice that could be considered potentially unfair is the use of interviews; this was used by almost half (49%) of the voluntary-aided secondary schools in London. Over a quarter (27%) of voluntary-aided schools interviewed parents as part of the admissions process.

• Comparisons with admissions criteria used in secondary schools in the rest of England revealed that the opportunities for overt and covert selection are greater in London than in the rest of England. More secondary schools in London than in the rest of England:

  • Select pupils on the basis of religion (27% versus 11%); this is due to the fact that there are relatively more voluntary-aided schools in London than in England as a whole;
  • Interview pupils as part of the admissions process (14% versus less than 1%);
  • Interview parents as part of the admissions process (8% versus less than 1%);
  • Give priority to children of former pupils (10% versus 4%);
  • Give priority to the children of employees (13% versus 8%);
  • Select a proportion of pupils on the basis of ability/aptitude in a subject area (5% versus 2%).

The evidence suggests that clearer legislation and regulation is needed, to prevent the continuation of policies and practices that are inequitable. The fact that interviews will not be permitted for intakes from September 2005 onwards can be seen to be a positive move in this direction. However, the evidence reported here indicates that special attention needs to be directed towards making secondary school admissions in London more equitable, so that schools that are their own admission authorities have fewer opportunities to choose certain pupils at the expense of others.

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