School autonomy and social segregation

One major concern with policies that allow schools autonomy from local authority control is that they exacerbate inequalities in who gets to go to school where, i.e. pupils sorting or segregation. The extent to which pupils from low-income families are concentrated in certain schools can be indicative of inequalities in access to schools and the distribution of peer effects suggests it might exacerbate social class gaps in attainment. English secondary schools are moderately socially segregation by international standards (Jenkins et al., 2008) and this has changed little in the past two decades (Gorard et al., 2003; Allen and Vignoles, 2007; Gibbons and Telhaj, 2007). What are the sources of this segregation?

Academic research has long observed that areas with large numbers of voluntary-aided faith schools have greater free school meals segregation (Goldstein and Noden, 2003; Allen and Vignoles, 2007), but faith groups argue this is not their responsibility since free school meals proportions at voluntary-aided schools are relatively similar to national rates. Prof Anne West and I have shown that faith schools were significantly more affluent than the direct neighbourhoods they are located in and that this is true for both Anglican and Catholic schools in all parts of the country (Allen and West, 2009; 2010). We used survey data of pupils and their parents to show that this was primarily because families who report they are Anglican or Catholic are of a higher social class background than those who are not. However, within the group of Christian families, it is the wealthier households that are more likely to have children at faith schools than low income religious households. Our research cannot explain why this is, but it suggests that there may be some low income households who might like their child to attend a faith school but have not been able to access one.

The former grant-maintained schools that are mostly now foundation schools also have intakes that are a little more affluent and of higher prior ability than their direct neighbourhoods. We can causally attribute this to the GM legislation of the 1990s by showing that schools who just won the parental vote to gain grant-maintained status now have significantly different intakes to the schools who just lost their vote to become grant-maintained and have thus remained as community schools (Allen, 2010).

So, there is some evidence that giving schools autonomy over their own admissions may produce more socially segregated schooling unless there are constraints to control how these admissions policies are devised and implemented. That said, residential sorting of households remains the most important source of secondary school segregation in all parts of the country. In new research I have explored the role that secondary schools play in contributing to segregated neighbourhoods by tracking house moves of children between the ages of 5 and 11 (Allen et al., 2010). While we find very high levels of house moves over this period in the child’s life, this house moving appears to contribute only a little to the residential sorting of households with 11 year-old children. Thus, the middle class phenomenon of choosing schools by moving house may be a less important contributor to social segregation of housing and schooling than we previously thought.


Allen, R. and Vignoles, A. (2007) What should an index of school segregation measure?, Oxford Review of Education 33(5)643-668.

Allen, R. and West, A. (2009) Religious schools in London: school admissions, religious composition and selectivity, Oxford Review of Education, 35(4)471-494.

Allen, R. and West, A. (2010) Why do faith secondary schools have advantaged intakes? The relative importance of neighbourhood characteristics, social background and religious identification amongst parents, British Educational Research Journal.

Allen, R. (2010) Does school autonomy improve educational outcomes? Judging the performance of foundation secondary schools in England, available at

Allen, R., Burgess, S. and Key, T. (2010) Choosing secondary school by moving house: school quality and the formation of neighbourhoods, CMPO discussion paper.

Gibbons, S. and Telhaj, S. (2007) Are schools drifting apart? Intake stratification in English secondary schools, Urban Studies, 44(7) 1281 – 1305.

Goldstein, H. & Noden, P. (2003) Modelling Social Segregation, Oxford Review of Education, 29, 225-237.

Gorard, S., Taylor, C. & Fitz, J. (2003) Schools, Markets and Choice Policies, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Jenkins, S.P. , Micklewright, J. and Schnepf, S. V. (2008) Social Segregation in Secondary Schools: How does England compare with other countries? Oxford Review of Education, 34(1) 21-38.

2 thoughts on “School autonomy and social segregation

  1. Geoffrey Short

    Would you be kind enough to give me the complete reference for your article:

    Why do faith secondary schools have advantaged intakes?

    1. It has been published as:
      Allen, R. and West, A. (2010) Why do faith secondary schools have advantaged intakes? The relative importance of neighbourhood characteristics, social background and religious identification amongst parents, British Educational Research Journal, forthcoming.

      Available on iFirst. Not yet allocated a volume.

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