Secondary school admissions in England:

Policy and practice

By Anne West, Eleanor Barham and Audrey Hind

Education Research Group

Department of Social Policy

London School of Economics and Political Science

March 2009

Commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education Trust

with financial support from the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation

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Executive Summary

This report presents the findings from the first part of a research project commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education (RISE) Trust with financial support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. It aims to provide an analysis of secondary schools’ admissions criteria and practices in England in light of the new legislative and regulatory context; it focuses on admissions to Year 7 in 2008. In addition to examining admissions criteria and practices, the report also provides an analysis of the content of supplementary information forms parents may be required to complete.


A database of all publicly-funded secondary schools in England was created and oversubscription criteria and selected practices were coded on a school-by-school basis. In addition, a sample of supplementary information forms was collected, a database created and an analysis made of their content.

Key findings

  • Most admissions criteria and practices were found to be broadly in line with the School Admissions Code (2007), although a minority of schools had criteria that could not be considered clear or objective.
  • Virtually all schools gave priority to children in care, as required by legislation, although a small minority of schools responsible for their own admissions did not. A minority of schools also failed to give top priority to this group of children, although by law they should.
  • Criteria giving priority to children with medical or social needs were given for six out of ten schools.
  • Over half of schools mentioned in their admissions criteria children with statements of special educational needs. These were predominantly community and voluntary controlled schools and academies as opposed to voluntary aided or foundation schools.
  • In a significant minority of schools, in the main voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies which are responsible for their own admissions, some criteria were used that are designed to select in pupils including partial selection by aptitude/ability in a subject area: more schools selected on this basis than did so in 2001 (5% versus 3%).
  • Very few schools reported the use of interviews, prohibited by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, although there was some evidence of pre-admission ‘meetings’.
  • More voluntary aided schools had an admissions criterion giving priority to children of ‘other faiths’ in 2008 than in 2001 (42% versus 23%).
  • A small number of grammar schools, which are by definition academically selective, also used oversubscription criteria such as aptitude/ability in a subject area or sought reports from the primary school headteacher.
  • Supplementary information forms (SIFs) were used by certain schools. Some of these requested information not permitted by the School Admissions Code. Others requested information unrelated to the school’s admissions criteria; this information could be used to select in or select out certain groups of pupils.
  • The nature of the information required in the SIFs (in terms of the questions and length of the forms) may result in some parents/carers being disadvantaged during the admissions process and raises questions about the ‘fairness’ of the process.

Implications for policy

  • The new legislation, associated School Admissions Code and determinations made by Schools Adjudicators have been effective in reducing the use of criteria that may advantage some groups of pupils over others. However, this research has brought to light further issues relating to the admissions process which suggest legislative changes are needed if some groups of pupils are not to be discriminated against. One concern is that the admissions process is unduly complex. Admissions criteria for community and voluntary controlled schools are, in the main, clear, objective and relatively simple for parents/carers to understand. The situation is different with voluntary aided schools where there can be a high number of criteria relating to religion and religious practice, creating difficulties for parents/carers and allowing scope for discretion in many cases. There is a case for a simplified procedure for determining religion and religious practice.
  • A significant proportion of academies and foundation schools select a proportion of children on the basis of aptitude/ability in a subject area. Fair banding across a wide area on the basis of the range of ability of children in the area or random allocation are likely to be more effective if the overall aim is to widen access to particular schools and create greater social equity.
  • It would be in the interests of parents/carers with children who have statements of special educational needs, to have information in a consistent form across all schools in an authority. This information is helpful for parents/carers of children with statements who may not be familiar with the admission process and its exclusion may signal that their child is not welcome at a particular school.
  • There is a concern about the nature of the SIFs – both in terms of their length and the questions asked – which may result in some parents being disadvantaged during the admissions process and raises questions about the ‘fairness’ of the process. Few schools sought information which was not permitted by the Code. However, more schools asked other personal questions which have not been prohibited by the Code. Further guidance to schools as to what is and what is not appropriate to ask would help admission authorities to have a clearer understanding of how they should use their supplementary information forms (cf Office of Schools Adjudicator, 2008).
  • According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF): ‘The admissions system can appear very complex to some parents’ (2007, para 1.65). However, our research suggests that the system may not appear complex but be complex. This is highly likely to be the case with parents/carers who are not highly educated. There is a strong case for admissions to all schools to be as simple and straightforward as the community schools (and some academies) identified in this report. Choice advisers may assist with the admissions process, but they do not address the inherent complexity and lack of clarity.
  • More fundamentally, schools that are responsible for their own admissions may exert discretion when making decisions about which pupils should be offered places in the event of the school being oversubscribed. It is not clear why decisions need to be taken at this level given the incentives for schools to perform well in school performance tables. For community and voluntary controlled schools, some academies and some voluntary aided schools, the local authority acts on behalf of the schools in question. This can be seen to be an independent body. However, for most schools responsible for their own admissions, the school itself makes the decision about who should be offered a place. There is a strong case for either the local authority or possibly a religious body with no vested interest in the outcome to take responsibility for the allocation process to ensure procedural fairness.
  • Key questions still remain in relation to the link between admissions criteria and practices and school composition. Until data are made available enabling the patterns of applications to be related to patterns of offers, it is still unclear whether school autonomy in relation to school admissions may be a factor in determining which pupils apply to which schools and which are offered places.

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