Pattern separation is a fundamental function of the brain. The divergent feedforward networks thought to underlie this computation are widespread, yet exhibit remarkably similar sparse synaptic connectivity. Marr-Albus theory postulates that such networks separate overlapping activity patterns by mapping them onto larger numbers of sparsely active neurons. But spatial correlations in synaptic input and those introduced by network connectivity are likely to compromise performance. To investigate the structural and functional determinants of pattern separation we built models of the cerebellar input layer with spatially correlated input patterns, and systematically varied their synaptic connectivity. Performance was quantified by the learning speed of a classifier trained on either the input or output patterns. Our results show that sparse synaptic connectivity is essential for separating spatially correlated input patterns over a wide range of network activity, and that expansion and correlations, rather than sparse activity, are the major determinants of pattern separation.