Sunday thoughts: Should more secondary schools run admissions like Free Schools?

Jonathan Simons
6 min readMar 5


This week, slightly unnoticed, a lengthy but important report on school admissions landed from Simon Burgess and colleagues from Bristol.

It’s a fascinating report, because it creates for the first time since mass academisation a dataset of how all 3,000 odd secondary schools in England run school admissions. (It’s also a great example of research comms because although the report is typically lengthy they do a great summary blog of the main conclusions, they make those conclusions really clear in policy language that doesn’t require you to read long econometric tables, and they tweet about the findings, which is how I spotted the report!)

The main conclusion is that the system is ferociously complex (duh), but also that almost all secondaries — 88% — use a distance criterion in their admissions policies, and normally pretty high up in the order of criteria (often below only the legal requirements to prioritise children in care etc, and below sibling priority). Distance is also most commonly used as the tiebreaker. Taken together, this means that the overwhelming majority of secondary schools give preference to those who live closest to it, leading to selection by house price. Other criteria, including those which specifically allow schools to prioritise Pupil Premium children, or that might lead to more balanced intakes, are much less common.

There is, says the report, one exception; one group of schools which uses more innovative approaches, and are “showing that other approaches to admissions are possible and may offer exemplars for other schools to follow”

These are Free Schools.

As the report says:

“Many free schools have innovative admissions arrangements, such as the Pupil Premium criterion and banding, and less reliance on traditional admissions arrangements such as catchment areas. Early research suggested that the admissions arrangements of free schools were exclusive rather than inclusive (Morris (2014)). The opposite now seems to be true, as free schools are more likely to have admissions arrangements that are designed to include disadvantaged pupils than other school types. This could be due to the ‘blank slate’ for these new schools, the mission or ethos of the governing board, or guidance from the Department for Education that prominently mentions these innovative admissions arrangements (Department for Education, 2014).”

You’ll forgive me for being slightly exultant here (or maybe you won’t, but you know what, it’s my blog) but this is a huge finding. The slightly dry academic phraseology above belies the ten years’ worth of fights and arguments between free school founders and their supporters, and opponents — often from schools running slightly more traditional admissions arrangements — that said that Free Schools would be more socially exclusive by design; that their only purpose was to provide safe havens for founders to send their own children to; and that they would simply cherry pick the most advantaged and motivated children to create an enclave of prestige for themselves, leaving everyone else to suffer.

Turns out not so much, huh?

This finding doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. After all, what is the motivation to set up a Free School (or rather, what was it in the early days, before it effectively became a route for MATs to expand)? It’s to improve education, of course, but particularly aimed at improving education among more deprived groups of students, often in urban areas. Looking at the character and background of so many early Free School founders, this is written into their DNA, and so using preferential admissions for PP children, or banding, follows logically from this fervent belief. (The Morris paper, cited by Burgess, does indeed conclude that the first couple of waves of Free Schools were more selective, but without getting into the details of it, I’m not sure the analysis in that paper justified its conclusion — the paper shows that with the exception of some place for founder children in 11 of the 81 schools studied, early free schools…..admitted by distance. And did banding. Which seems counterintuitive data from which to draw the headline conclusion of exclusivity. See, perhaps, ideological debate around Free Schools.)

Why is it that this explicit prioritisation of PP children, allowed since 2014, is only used in 5% of secondary school admissions? Especially when, as the authors say, the overwhelming attitude of people who work in education is progressive (small p)?

I think there’s three reasons. Partly because, as the paper says, there are some benefits for schools in recruiting locally, and there are benefits in terms of community cohesion for most children in a neighbourhood to go to local secondary schools. Partly, more cynically, because the gains to schools of a more affluent intake (in terms of exam scores, Ofsted grades) outweigh the moral duty to skewing admissions towards the more deprived. And partly because it’s hard. The school I helped to found, Greenwich Free School, originally used banding for admissions, as did all secondary schools in Greenwich at the time, but which we chose to opt into because we thought it would have benefits in terms of creating a balanced intake. And it did. But it was also complicated — we worried that not all students would sit banding tests; we had endless circular discussions about whether the bands should reflect national attainment distribution or Greenwich distribution; and we couldn’t resolve the issue of how you applied oversubscription criteria within the bands. Eventually, the school abandoned banding, and now runs a distance based criterion. I don’t criticise them for that in the slightest.

But just because school admissions reform is hard, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be looked at. There are some really simple things which need to happen to make it easier. The Burgess paper found that

33% of local authorities do not publish school admissions guides that contain the admissions arrangements for all schools in their area, 63% do not provide full information about schools’ over-subscription in the previous academic year, and almost 10% of local authorities contain schools where catchment area information is not possible to find without contacting individual schools. Information can be incomplete, unclear or incorrect — it seems like a relatively easy policy win to correct these shortcomings.

I couldn’t agree more. Alongside this, government could look again at supporting the practical mechanisms for aiding school choice, such as around school transport, which often only takes children for free to their closest school. And where government can’t or won’t fund it, I think there’s a strong case for philanthropists and others who support education reform and school standards to pay for things like transport, and better and more practical guidance in primary schools (and outside it) as a practical way to make choice viable.

Because despite being ever so trendy to say “choice isn’t a thing actually, it’s preferences you know, and most people don’t even have them”, that’s not true. The Burgess paper shows that 64% of all secondary schools were oversubscribed in the 2020/2021 academic year (table A1). And other work from the team at Bristol from a few years back showed that 75% of all pupils have three schools within 4km of their house, and over a third (36%) have 3 schools within 2km. And these figures are higher for PP pupils (because they tend to live in urban areas) — 75% within 3km and 48% within 2km. The net effect is that only 46% of pupils attend their nearest secondary school. Even in rural areas, only 59% attend their closest school.

So when choice (or preference) is so available — and it makes such a difference which school a young person attends — it’s really important that admissions policy supports the proper and fair exercise of that choice. Time to take another look.