This report by the Education Policy Institute looks at the density of high quality secondary school places across England, comparing high quality places in 2015 with 2010 in order to identify whether geographic access to high performing schools is improving.

Widening access to high performing schools is crucial if the government’s policy objective of improving social mobility is to be met. Indeed, the Department for Education’s recently published Social Mobility Action Plan has a strong emphasis on ‘place’, and states that ‘where you live will affect where you get to in life – while in some areas opportunity can become self-perpetuating, in other communities, disadvantage can become entrenched’.

You can download the report here

Key Findings


Availability of high performing secondary schools:

  • Access to high performing schools in England has become more geographically unequal over the period 2010-2015. This is in spite of government policies aimed at improving school performance outside higher performing areas such as London. Virtually all local authorities with consistently low densities of high performing school places are in the North, particularly the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. In Blackpool and Hartlepool local authorities there are no high performing secondary school places.
  • From 2010 to 2015, local authorities with consistently good access to high performing secondary schools saw the proportion of pupils with access to such schools rise from 49% in 2010 to 58% in 2015. Many of these areas are in London.
  • However, in areas with consistently low densities of high performing school places, the proportion of pupils with access to such places fell from just 6% in 2010 to 5% in 2015. These include areas such as Blackpool, Hartlepool, Barnsley, Redcar and Cleveland, Knowsley, and Middlesbrough.
  • When analysing access to schools at a disaggregated, neighbourhood level, in both 2010 and 2015 we also find one fifth of local areas in England had no high performing secondary schools within reasonable travel distance. This means pupils in these neighbourhoods are unlikely to have had any opportunity to access a place at a high performing school.

Examining the 20 local authorities with the largest increases in the density of high performing secondary school places, and the 20 local authorities with the greatest decreases, the widening geographic inequality in access to high performing schools is also evident:

  • Of the 20 local areas with the biggest increases in high performing school places, 16 of which were in London, the proportion of such places rose significantly from 36% to 60% from 2010-2015. The largest riser was Harrow.
  • However, of the 20 areas with the largest fall in high performing places, none of which were in London, the proportion of high performing places fell from 31% in 2010 to 20% in 2015. The biggest faller was Blackburn with Darwen.

Opportunity Areas:

  • There are large areas of the country which currently have no access to a high performing school. Of particular note is the North East, which as a region has virtually no high performing schools. Despite this, no part of the region has been selected as one of the government’s Opportunity Areas.
  • If the government believes that introducing the Opportunity Areas initiative would address the lack of access to a high performing school, then our analysis suggests that there should be one in the North East.