TDT is dedicated to supporting effective professional development in schools, something we know if involves a complex set of individual and school level factors.  In particular, our own research shows the importance of culture in establishing the right circumstances for teachers and school leaders to thrive.


In this guest blog, Charlotte O’Regan of the Sutton Trust sets out how another key policy area – admissions – is influenced by the culture in a school and the decisions made around how to best support the most vulnerable pupils.

Until recently I was a Vice Principal at a comprehensive school in a coastal region of Kent. We served a community that has more children eligible for Free School Meals than the national average. Amongst other areas I lead on Pupil Premium and I genuinely thought that I had seen and read all there was to know about supporting this group of young people.

It turns out I was mistaken. The Sutton Trust has been publishing research for almost 20 years looking at the issue of school admissions. Our research shows that children eligible for Free School Meals are less likely to attend a top performing comprehensive than their more advantaged peers. The system is creating schools that are socially segregated.

Some of this is predictable. More affluent parts of the country have, on average, higher performing schools. But how do we account for the fact that even at a local level social segregation exists? Partly it is down to house prices and the fact that the majority of schools use a distance measure as their first oversubscription criteria after EHCPs and CiCs.  As the reputation of a school improves, the cost of the houses around it increases, slowly displacing working-class families until they can no longer afford to live near enough to a top performing school.

But that isn’t the whole picture. My journey to understand this complex eco-system has reminded me that there is always more to learn and more to uncover. In an industry such as teaching we must strive for a model of continuous, unrelenting improvement driven by learning and professional development.

I now know that school choices are driven by a range of factors. 56% of working-class families state that ‘hidden costs’ of attending a school affected their decisions. I have learnt that the average reading age of an adult in the UK lies somewhere between 9 and 11 years old. I wonder how many admissions policies have been written with this in mind. Transport can act as a significant barrier; some families aren’t aware of their rights to free transport.

I also now understand why the issue of school admissions is such an important one to address in our collective efforts to close the attainment gap. Fundamentally all children deserve equal access to the best education we can provide to them, especially given the correlation between school outcomes and social mobility. However, the effects are more widespread than this.

Sutton Trust research has found that schools with the highest levels of disadvantage are more likely to face issues with teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in core subjects. By ensuring a better social mix across schools we can level the play field. It also leads to more diverse and inclusive schools which better prepare our young people for the world of work. It can lead to a more engaged parent body, and most importantly it is a cost-effective system change that could improve the lives of thousands of young people for years to come.

Knowing and understanding an issue is one thing. But solving it is quite another, leading us to the importance of professional development. School leaders shouldn’t be expected to come up with the solutions on their own, and when it comes to school admissions the Sutton Trust is here to help.

We are therefore proud to announce the launch of the Sutton Trust Fair School Admissions Pledge and Award. We recognise that there will be many leaders who are already running schools that have inclusive policies, and we want to celebrate this. We also recognise that this research might inspire some to review what they are doing, so we’re on-hand to support you through this process.

Applications for the Fair School Admissions Pledge close on the 19th April. Schools that commit to the Pledge will gain access to a wealth of resources and expertise from The Sutton Trust to help them on their journey. They will start by being supported to complete a Fair Access Review, looking at the FSM population compared to national and local averages, calculating the cost of attending their school and reflecting on their admissions policies, both in terms of their accessibility and also whether their over-subscription criteria act as barriers for low-income families to attend their schools.

Once schools have a strong understanding on their current context they will work with The Sutton Trust to write an Action Plan to improve the inclusiveness of their admissions processes. Schools that can demonstrate good practice in the area of admissions, for example they are working through their action plans or perhaps they have a Pupil Premium category in their oversubscription criteria, can apply for the Fair School Admissions Award. Schools will be awarded either a bronze, silver or gold level award and are free to use this on their websites and letterheads to ensure they are recognised for their excellent practice.

By committing to the pledge schools will be joining a network of schools on the same journey, allowing us to work smarter not harder through the power of collaboration.

School admissions isn’t the final word in closing the attainment gap, but it is certainly a significant stepping stone. Schools that increase their populations of children eligible for Free School Meals will need further professional development to ensure they can support them to thrive. This might mean developing their pastoral provision or strengthening their teaching of literacy. This is underpinned by ensuring each school’s culture aligns with the community it serves.

It’s a journey that won’t be fixed overnight, so we need to embark on it today. School leaders who would like to find out more can visit our webpage or email to arrange a chat.


Charlotte O’Regan joined the Sutton Trust in August 2023 as the Senior Schools Engagement Manager. Her role focuses on Secondary School Admissions.

Prior to joining the trust Charley has 15 years experience working in secondary schools. Primarily as a Science and Physics teacher and for the final 6 years as a Senior Leader. Charley is passionate about social mobility, having led on Pupil Premium and focussing her Masters Dissertation on improving outcomes for pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium.