Top comprehensive schools are more socially exclusive than selective grammar schools, according to a major study out today.
It found that they were far less likely to take their fair share of youngsters from disadvantaged homes than the 164 remaining grammar schools.
In fact, a list of the 100 most socially selective schools in the country included 91 comprehensives, eight grammar schools and even one secondary modern schools.
The report, by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham's Centre for Education and Employment Research, said the 164 top performing comprehensives – on average – took in only 9.2 per cent of children from deprived income homes compared with 13.5 per cent for the grammar schools.
In both cases, the schools would have had to take in 20 per cent to reflect the social mix in the area.In addition, it found that the leading comprehensives were also less likely to take in pupils from ethnic minority groups.
The report, commissioned by the Sutton Trust – the education charity set up by millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl – queries whether Labour's strict code on admissions – which outlaws interviewing parents seeking a place – has had any impact in solving the problem of back-door selection. "There is still wriggle room for schools that want to ensure a favourable intake to enable them to show up well in the league tables," the authors argue.
The report recommends that schools should look to introducing ballots to ensure a fairer method of admitting pupils. The procedure, introduced in Brighton and used by a handful of academies, has faced criticism by politicians for turning the whole process into a lottery, on the basis that "no child's education should be decided by the roll of a dice".
However, Sir Peter, in a foreword to the report, argues: "There has to be some way of choosing which pupils are admitted and ballots offer the same chances to all children irrespective of their background."
The report argues there are still methods through which comprehensive schools can use covert selection. "Schools with a religious affiliation can give preference to people of the faith," it says. "Some comprehensive schools have retained the right from when they were grammar schools to select a proportion of their intakes by ability and some specialist schools are able to select up to 10 per cent by aptitude. Schools can use distance from the school as a criterion and this may tend to exclude low-income homes if it sits in a prosperous area."
On the question of grammar schools admitting more pupils from ethnic minority groups, the report says: "When they have the choice, it seems that parents tend to seek out schools which take children similar to their own."
This is said to be the reason for the one secondary modern school being on the list of the 100 most socially exclusive. It serves a leafy county area of the country with a largely white British intake in an area which is still selective.
The figures show that – whereas 18 grammar schools have fewer than 50 per cent white British entrants – only one comparable comprehensive does. "A high proportion of ethnic minority sub-groups were admitted to the grammars but particularly those from Indian and Chinese backgrounds," it says.
The Liberal Democrats would argue that their top education priority to introduce a £2,500 "pupil premium" for every youngster enrolled from a disadvantaged home would address the problem. However, the report wonders whether this would be enough to defeat the pressure schools face from securing a good position in exam league tables.
The Conservatives aim to create "more good schools" by allowing parents to set them up themselves which, the report argues, "is a difficult case to make given the financial state of the country". It adds: "There are reasons for doubting whether this approach would make secondary education less socially selective because the schools are likely to be set up by particular groups concerned mostly with the interests of their own children."
On Labour's policy of cracking down on covert selection with a mandatory admissions code banning interviews, the report says its impact is "arguable".
"It is undeniable, however, that the admissions code is complicated, time-consuming and causes a lot of heartache to parents," it adds.