Improving equality of access in the British education system

The education system is the most integral part of our society – solely responsible for developing the next generation of leaders and workers. I believe that if the government wants to improve life in the UK for as many people as possible the place to start is with those who will next inherit our society: our students.

Educational policy aims to create economic efficiency, equality of educational opportunity and the raising of educational standards. In this essay I will discuss the gaps in the delivery of equality of educational opportunity and what I believe the government should do to address it; improving equality in the education system and subsequently life in the UK. As a young person currently in the education system I have seen, and am currently seeing first hand, the continuous failure of our schools to provide students with equality of educational access and opportunity. Those currently in school will shape the next generation of our society and if we want it to be equal, we have to start there. I believe that ensuring equality of access, the first of Youdell and Gillborn’s four dimensions of educational equality, is the best way to go about this. Equality of access can be defined as ‘every child having the same rights and opportunities to obtain access to educational provision’ (Youdell and Gilborn, 2000). The problem I see in delivering this currently is covert selection. The policy I propose to resolve this is mandatory evaluation and examination of all school admissions paperwork and processes to ensure that no form of covert selection is taking place that can make a significant impact on the proportion of the intake of students of certain social groups (most typically based on class and ethnicity) .

Covert selection was first identified by sociologists Tough and Brooks in 2007, who defined it as ‘the process by which schools use backdoor social selection to ‘cherry pick’ pupils they believe to be higher ability’. This is arguably driven by marketisation policies that force schools into competition for results and funding, often leading to schools covertly prioritizing the entry of white, middle class students who due to many intersecting cultural and material factors are statistically high achievers. The deliberate attraction of middle class parents and students comes hand in hand with giving working class parents and students a sense of you don’t belong here. Covert selection can be conducted in several ways. For example, using overly complicated language in school paperwork and choosing complicated, ‘posh’ books for school literature syllabi, organising welcome talks and tours of the school in the middle of the working day (working class parents are less likely to have employment that allows them to take the day off work) and choosing uniform suppliers with overwhelming, mandatory costs. Covert selection is officially outlawed by the School Admissions Code (2014), yet still occurs.

This is not an issue that is unfamiliar to both Ofsted and the wider government. In 2013, Christine Gilbert – the former chief inspector of Ofsted – led an Academies Commission Report in which the use of covert selection was identified as an admissions issue. Citing Dr Joan Wilson, the report proposes that:

independence from local authority control coupled with a continued pursuit of academic excellence may encourage newer Academies to adapt their admissions towards a more homogeneous and advantageous pupil intake, a fragmented situation that would further reduce fairness in access to schools, lowering potential attainment and educational opportunity among disadvantaged pupils in particular.

The report sparked brief publicity and interest in the subject and covert selection was outlawed by the School Admissions Code in the following year. The government has also taken steps towards resolving the issue of covert selection. On the 29th of April 2021, the House of Lords passed a bill to limit uniform costs and increase equal access to uniform. These evidence the ongoing presence of the issue, and that there is a place for the eradication of covert selection in the interests of our MPs, but we could be doing more.

Even though the school admissions code banned covert selection, it is still a practice that takes place. We need harsher regulations to stop it. To solve this issue I propose an altering of the regular Ofsted school inspection process. As part of the routine four year interval inspection and all other visits, inspectors should read all admissions forms and evaluate all admissions protocols and events that the school in question puts on to attract potential students. Guidelines should standardise the signs of covert selection and inspectors should therefore be well equipped to spot it. When visiting schools, Ofsted should be required to view all paperwork that prospective parents are sent before deciding to apply for a school place and are then required to fill in. It would also be beneficial, I believe, to make it mandatory for all schools to adhere to certain guidelines regarding the practice of covert selection. For example, when scheduling open days and tours of the school, schools should be obliged to hold at least one outside of working hours.

The impact of this policy would make our schools, and subsequently society, more diverse and welcoming places. The policy to tackle covert selection is, I believe a strong idea as it’s not only simple and achievable but would also touch many other issues concerning equality of educational access, killing more than two birds with one stone by influencing the rates of progression of working class children to higher education, the decrease of homogeneity in school populations therefore increasing the diversity of student bodies and allowing students to learn from their peers from different walks of life instead of learning in an echo chamber. This policy has the potential to be just as beneficial as the Academies Commission Report concluded tackling covert selection would be a decade ago.

The importance of fully eradicating all covert selection practices from the UK’s education system cannot be stressed enough. If we ever hope to have a cohesive society where all feel welcome, equal and like they belong, we have to start at the beginning. If before a child’s educational journey has even begun, they’ve already been made to feel like a certain school isn’t meant for them due to expensive uniform, complicated school literature and a pre-application process that isn’t accessible for their parents or guardians to engage with; then how do we expect them to feel comfortable, confident and safe entering spaces they feel also fall into the category of ones they shouldn’t belong in, such as universities and top competitive careers. Every problem has a root and one strong root of this one is conditioning children of certain social groups in the UK to evaluate whether they belong in a space based on how much it’s going to cost them to be there (emotionally, financially and practically) before they’ve even finished their SATS. Openly condemning and eradicating the process of covert selection would not only educate people to be equipped to spot it, but also start conveying an important message to our young people and their parents: you belong anywhere you want to be.


DfE. School Admissions Code (2014)

Gilbert, C. Husbands, C. Wigdortz, B. Francis, B. Unleashing greatness: getting the best from an academised system. The Report of the Academies Commission (2013)

Tough, S. Brooks, R. School admissions: fair choice for parents and pupils. London institute for Public Policy Research (2007)

Youdell, D. Gillborn D. Rationing education: policy, practice, reform and equity. Buckingham Open University Press (2000)