Selective Comprehensives 2024: The social composition of top comprehensive schools

Sarah Tang and Neha Agarwal

11 January 2024

This research updates analysis from 2016 which compares how representative different groups of schools are compared to their catchment area in terms of the socio-economic background of their pupils. We compare the free school meal rate (FSM) of the pupils in a school’s entry cohort (generally Year 7) to the FSM rate of their catchment areas.

The project, funded by the Sutton Trust, used data from the National Pupil Database to estimate the school-level FSM rates of pupils in schools' entry cohorts (generally Year 7) and compare these to the FSM rates of the schools’ catchment areas. The focus of the research was to explore whether the FSM rates of the ‘top’ 500 comprehensive schools (as measured by Progress 8 or Attainment 8) reflected that of their location.   

Key Findings

  • The top performing 500 comprehensives in England, based on Progress 8 scores, have lower rates of pupils who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) on average (17 per cent) in their intakes compared to all schools nationally (22 per cent). 

  • Around one-eighth of the gap is due to the top 500 schools (Progress 8) being located in catchment areas with lower levels of disadvantage. Despite this, they are still less representative in terms of pupils who are eligible for FSM than their catchment areas might suggest.

  • Within the top 500 schools, over a quarter admit a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils into their intakes than seen in their catchment areas. This illustrates that schools can be both top performing and fully representative of their catchment areas. 

  • However, 73 per cent of the top 500 have a negative gap between the school and its catchment area FSM rate which is much higher than for all schools nationally (50 per cent). Furthermore, 10 per cent of the top 500 have an FSM gap which is 10 percentage points or more below their catchments. This suggests they are very under-represented in terms of disadvantaged pupils compared to what may be expected based on their catchment areas.