Abstract The paper explores the use of geodemographics as a means of assessing potential inequality in access to compulsory education. The article argues that applying an area classification, one of the first in China, allows consideration of multi-dimensional, socio-spatial influences which affect school choice. The ideas are illustrated through a case study of central Beijing. Variables from the 2010 Census have been used to create a sub-district classification to identify whether pupils are living in more or less advantaged locations for access to schools, given China's specific institutional environment. The influence of ‘hukou’ (the Chinese residential registration system) on the distances that pupils travel to school and the quality of schools that pupils can attend are discussed in detail. Recognition of areas that are most appropriate for additional investment can help improve the efficiency and equity of the allocation of resources to schools. This study also provides new knowledge about the evolution of urban social space, explaining why the implementation of ‘nearby enrolment’ policy can be both inefficient and inequitable.

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