school choice

How segregated are English schools?

Last week, parents across England found out which secondary school their children would attend in September.

School admissions really is critical to how socially integrated we are in the UK. The segregation of school pupils – by ethnic or socio-economic background - is a barrier to achieving real social integration.

Increasing social integration is currently a major focus of Government policymaking. In a speech last year, the Prime Minister said: “It cannot be right that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths.” Later this year, the Casey Review will be published, suggesting policies to improve the opportunities and integration of Britain's ethnic minorities.

This piece reviews the evidence for how segregated English schools are and what causes the segregation.

How segregated are English schools?      

The answer to this question depends on which measure of segregation is used: ethnic or socio-economic background.

Ethnic segregation

A 2015 study found that 61% of ethnic minority pupils in England are in primary and secondary schools where ethnic minority pupils are a majority, while 94% of pupils classified as white British are in primary and secondary schools with a white British majority. Although the study does show that, as English school pupils have become more diverse, ethnic segregation in schools has begun to decline.

This data also showed that the level of ethnic diversity in a town is not necessarily associated with the level of ethnic diversity in schools. For example, towns such as Bradford, Birmingham and Oldham have significant levels of ethnic diversity, yet have some of the highest levels of ethnic segregation in their schools.

Socio-economic segregation

Socio-economic segregation in schools is more difficult to measure than ethnic segregation. Nonetheless, a widely publicised 2012 OECD report found that England had some of the most socio-economic segregated schools in the developed world. In contrast, a second study found England to be a mid-ranking country in terms of socio-economic segregation. Countries with high socio-economic segregation include Austria, Belgium, Germany and Hungary, while countries with low socio-economic segregation include the four Nordic countries and Scotland.

What causes segregation?

There are a number of potential causes of school segregation – both in terms of ethnicity and socio-economic background - in England. These include: self-segregation, residential segregation, and selection bias.


In England, parents apply to a shortlist of schools. Self-segregation occurs when parents, consciously or unconsciously, choose schools which contain pupils of similar backgrounds. There is some evidence that this does in fact occur. For example, usually, pupils attend their nearest school. However, this is much less likely to occur, if the nearest school has a different dominant ethnicity to the pupil. This suggests that some parents are choosing to send their children to schools which contain pupils of a similar ethnicity.

There is also some evidence that the ‘choice agenda’ – whereby parents are given increased choice in the destination school of their child – has led to increased segregation. A 2006 Equalities and Human Rights Commission report found that there had been a significant increase in segregation as a result of increased parental choice.

Residential segregation

Around two-thirds of English schools prioritise applications from children who live nearest to the school. The schools population is therefore likely to closely mirror its ‘catchment area’. If residential areas are themselves segregated, then it is likely to that schools too will be segregated.

While residential segregation is almost certainly one of the primary causes of school segregation, it does not account for all segregation. A 2006 report – in line with many other reports – found that school segregation was “substantially and significantly” greater than residential segregation.

Selection bias 

Around 25% of students in England are in schools which give at least some consideration to a child’s ability and/or the recommendation of feeder schools. The profile of such schools vary. Grammar schools, of which there are 164 in England, explicitly select students who are academically excellent. Other students in academically selective schools may attend comprehensive schools. Comprehensive schools that specialise in particular subject areas (including languages, arts, sport, and design and technology) are permitted to select up to 10% of their pupils on aptitude for the relevant subject. Selecting by aptitude may lead to increased segregation because parents of white, middle-class pupils are more likely to apply to selective schools and are more likely to prepare their children to pass the entrance requirements or test.

Schools in England may also select for other criteria. For example, faith schools are permitted to prioritise the admission of students who follow the school’s religion. Clearly, this is likely to cause significant ethnic segregation since religion is closely associated with ethnicity. There is evidence that selective faith schools also cause socio-economic segregation. For instance, around 12% of pupils at state funded primary faith schools are eligible for free school meals compared to just over 16% of all primaries


If the Government is to make real progress in boosting social integration, it will need to focus on reducing school segregation. The evidence shows that there is substantial socio-economic and ethnic school segregation in England. Levels of segregation vary by region. The causes of this segregation are diverse, including: self-segregation, residential segregation and selection bias.