Explainer: how do free schools allocate places?

Who gets to go to a free school? Tim Ireland/PA Archive

As a type of academy operating outside of local authority control, free schools act as their own admissions authority. They can choose the criteria they wish to use to prioritise the allocation of places.

In light of concerns raised in a recent parliamentary report that free schools are not being set up in areas of greatest demand for new places, the issue of who can get into free schools has gained more importance.

My research on secondary free schools in England looked at what criteria they are using and what potential impact this can have on the intakes of schools. What’s clear is the diversity and, in some cases, the complexity of the oversubscription criteria being used by the schools.

Such diversity is perhaps not surprising considering that at the heart of the free schools policy are notions of independence, individuality and autonomy. Like all other state-funded schools, free schools must adhere to the School Admissions Code. But their power to prioritise the allocation of places results in them having considerable influence over their overall intakes.

This ability to prioritise places through oversubscription criteria is only applicable where the school is oversubscribed. Where it is not, the school is obliged to take every child that has applied.

But there appears to be confusion on the figures around oversubscription. In a recent survey, the government reported that free schools had three applicants for every place. But data analysis published soon after by the Labour party said that 70% of free schools were not full two years after opening.

Lotteries and banding

Random allocation of students to schools can be an effective way of tackling the imbalanced intakes which result when children are admitted based on their proximity to a school.

The School Admissions Code prevents local authorities from using random ballots, or lotteries, as their principal method to decide who gets in if they are oversubscribed, yet schools responsible for their own admissions are not subject to this restriction. A handful of free schools have opted to use this method for admitting some of their intakes, although it is still too soon to know the impact that it might have had on student composition.

A recent Sutton Trust report advocates the use of ability banding as a way of creating more comprehensive intakes. A small proportion of free schools such as Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford and Corby Technical School in Corby have opted to employ this as part of their admissions procedures. But as of 2013 just two secondary schools, Greenwich Free School and Hackney New School in London, used it within a wider local banding system that takes in other schools and ensures a more representative intake.

Prioritising applicants

The majority of free schools use some form of geographical criteria in prioritising applications. Some decide their own catchment areas, select certain postcode districts, or include specific “nodal points” which are used as a reference to measure proximity from.

One school, the Bristol Free School, states that 20% of remaining places (after those admitted on medical or sibling grounds) will be allocated to those living closest to the school. The remaining 80% will be assigned based on living closest to a point nearly two miles away from the school in a reportedly more affluent area. In 2012-2013, the free school had just 12.5% of children eligible for free school meals compared with 22.5% across all of the city’s secondaries.

Clearly, the admissions policies used by schools can play an important role in determining the intakes and levels of social stratification between schools.

Proximity criteria, which prioritise those living nearest the school, are used by the majority of secondary free schools and are often included as a way of trying to reflect the local community. But such criteria can also reflect the high levels of residential segregation seen in many English cities, thus reinforcing divisions rather than challenging them. This also means that successful schools can only be accessed by those able to afford to live nearby.

Some free schools have a faith designation, and therefore use faith-based admission criteria to prioritise entry for 50% of their students. Currently, 35 of the 174 free schools in England use faith admissions criteria.

Increasing the number of schools which use religious criteria to admit children can only be viewed as a threat in the quest for fairer admissions, more balanced intakes and a more cohesive society. While providing a religious ethos might accommodate the preferences of the particular group establishing a free school, it simultaneously makes the school less accessible to other families.

All of the secondary religious free schools include faith criteria which adhere to the School Admissions Code. But the allocation of places to 50% of applicants based on faith could considerably increase the possibility of socioeconomic and ethnic segregation. In some faith schools, it is also likely that the proportion of children from a particular religion would be even higher than 50% if the schools do not attract enough families from different faiths or no faith.

Free schools are allowed to openly select 10% of their intake on aptitude for certain subjects. A significant minority of the free schools are opting to use these methods of allocating places despite concerns that they do not promote fair, equitable access for all children.

Local authority admissions

The introduction of more schools using both overt and covert methods of selecting students should be viewed as concerning in itself. Yet it is also worth observing that the admissions criteria used by many free schools are frequently identical or very similar to those used by their local authorities for community schools.

Examples of this can be seen in Birmingham, Lambeth, Kent, East Sussex and other areas, perhaps highlighting a commitment towards cooperation with local authorities and a desire to offer consistency and simplicity to parents during the admissions process.

These reasons for using similar admissions policies and processes are positive, but it must also be remembered that like free schools, the vast majority of local authorities use geographical criteria, and consequently their schools can be affected by the issues raised above.

In aiming for a more equitable system for school admissions it is therefore going to be necessary to look beyond what a relatively small number of free schools are doing. Instead, the focus needs to be on a system-wide reform which promotes fairer allocation procedures in all schools.