Gove declares his support for "fair banding", well, sort of...

Francis Gilbert's picture
The most interesting part of the Times + debate entitled, "Are our schools fit for purpose?" at Wilton's Hall in Wapping, London, tonight was Michael Gove's response to my question about school admissions. I asked the panel, which consisted of former Labour Education Secretary, Lady Estelle Morris, curriculum guru Dylan Williams, and Teach First's CEO, Brett Wigdortz, what admissions policy would stop the social segregation that's happening at the moment in our schools. I pointed out the evidence highlighted in the Barnardo's Unlocking The School Gates report which shows that in the top achieving secondary schools there are fewer than 5% of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM), and that the majority of FSM pupils are concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools. I emphasized the fact that in counties like Kent the Eleven-plus is a form of 'child abuse', and emphatically drives down standards overall as well as promoting chronic social segregation -- there are only a tiny proportion of FSM pupils in grammar schools.

Dylan William spoke first, pointing out that private schools do well because the children are from socially advantaged backgrounds and that it's this factor -- the fact that clever pupils help each other -- that increases attainment and not the quality of teaching; in fact, if you equalise "social factors", then private school pupils achieve 25% below the average attained by pupils in the state sector. Estelle Morris endorsed this by saying that the best teachers are in our inner city schools. Brett Wigdortz acknowledged that our schools are very socially segregated and it's a big issue that needs to be addressed. None of the panel talked about grammar schools.

Gove took a while to answer the question -- there were two others about English Baccalaureate to answer (see below) -- but when he did, he gave the appearance of being forthright but actually was quite disingenuous. He said that he supported a "fair banding" system where pupils of all abilities within a local area are dispersed fairly and equally throughout a family of schools. All well and good except for the fact that he felt "Academies" -- schools "free" from Local Authority control -- were the best illustration of this. He also went on to say that Free Schools would also lead to a fairer admissions system because they would have added financial incentives to take children on Free School Meals in addition to the Pupil Premium, which he acknowledged was not as big a financial incentive as he would have liked. While appearing to support "fair admissions", anyone in the "know" is aware that Academies and Free Schools are and will be their own "admissions authorities" and that, on the whole, as the Barnardos report shows so powerfully, it's when schools are in charge of their own admissions that social segregation happens. This will be particularly the case for the new Academies which are mainly in areas of social advantage; there's no indication that they will be opting for "fair banding" because the majority of them are "Voluntary Aided" schools where they select pupils by faith and use "aptitude tests" such as selecting pupils with high abilities in Music. Some of the "old" Labour Academies -- like the ones in Hackney -- select by fair banding, but there's absolutely no evidence that the new Academies will be imitating their example. Furthermore, as we have seen countless times on this site, Free Schools seem to have a strong agenda to segregate children, whether it's by social class or religion.

So it was yet another example of "double-speak" from Gove: saying that he's interested in integrating and unifying our fractured communities by school admissions, but actually implementing policies that do the exact opposite. The Labour Teachers website reveals this quite well I feel. He's been very successful in persuading people about this; I've spoken to a number of people who think that Academies are the key to solving the social segregation issue because they are not fully aware of all the facts.

At the drinks reception afterwards, I spoke to a group wanting to set up the Wapping High School, a Free School for secondary children in Tower Hamlets, clearly disappointed to see that Gove had escaped early, and who all professed to their belief in social cohesion. Their agenda was clear though: they wanted to create a secondary school which attracted "middle class" parents in an area of social disadvantage. Interestingly, they explained they were not getting very far with their proposal because they weren't willing to contract an educational provider -- such as Ark, Harris etc -- to run their Free School for them. "The only game in town at the DfE is getting an educational provider; they won't listen to you otherwise," one of them said.

The debate actually concentrated mostly upon a central issue: the need to have good, motivated teachers in our classrooms. Every speaker -- including Gove -- said that our schools are fit for purpose -- there was no Birbalsingh/Toby Young hyperbole -- but we need to raise the standards of teaching. Dylan Williams spoke most eloquently on this -- showing that it's not the school a child goes to that's crucial but the teacher that he gets when he's there -- but Brett Wigdortz pleased me the most by praising the school my son is going to Bethnal Green Technology College because of its headteacher's relentless focus upon improving learning in the classroom. The school is one of the most improved in the country, despite the fact that over half its pupils are on Free School Meals: recruiting Teach First teachers has played a big role in this, but good leadership has as well. It is a Local Authority school. Gove most emphatically did not refer to it; speaking only about the high achievements of Academies.

He did a similar dodge when asked about leaving out Religious Education from the English Baccalaureate. A colleague of mine pointed out how facile his response was; he simply asked the audience to put their hands up as to whether they thought there was too much or too little religion in our society. Only a small proportion of the audience joined in with this ruse. Then he dodged the question by praising his questioners' passion and commitment and repeating his reasons for the Bacc in the first place. No reference to RE was made after that.

Estelle Morris's best moment: when she caught Gove out about Free Schools "cherry picking" the cleverest poor pupils to get extra funding.

Dylan Williams' best moment: pointing out that the teaching in private schools is rubbish.

Brett Wigdortz's best moment: praising the great work at Bethnal Green Technology College and showing that Local Authority schools are great as a result.

Michael Gove's best moment: admitting that "fair banding" is the best and fairest method of school admissions.

But I left the debate feeling that it's school admissions that's the ABSOLUTELY vital issue to address at the moment. There's huge consensus amongst all political parties and relevant groups that we need great teachers and how to do that, but it's making sure we end the overt and covert selection in our school system that's vitally important.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 05:51

There are lots of different types of 'fair banding ' systems and some are less fair than others because the schools concerned run own school banding systems which then band against the spread of ability amongst applicants rather than against a local or national ability spread. If these schools tend to get applicants from the top ability groups ( or certain social groups), there is some evidence that they then have a 'comprehensive' mix of higher ability students .
Some schools are quite adept at influencing this applicant pool; the way the open evening is presented; the way the brochure is distributed or the school is marketed; sending subtle signals about the type of children who will 'thrive' at the school because of its narrow curriculum; having an expensive school uniform; asking for financial donations from the parents; making clear that all students would be expected to have a computer in their own home; running banding tests on a Saturday morning and so on.
The only way to run a really 'fair' banding system, is to ensure it is managed locally on behalf of all schools by the local authority. All schools also need to take part for it to work well. This is obviously not an option in some parts of the country , rural areas for example, where children can't travel great distances to fill bands in other schools, but there is no reason why it cant work well in urban areas, or at least better than the current increasingly fragmented system does.
You also need all schools to be oversubscribed in each band to get a really equal distribution of ability.

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 08:31

Really interesting set of reports on this debate Francis. I suspect Gove is going to get into more of a difficulty as time goes on, torn between promoting his 'favoured schools' and favoured state school critics - remember, he was sitting on the platform at Tory party conference, nodding along, when Katherine Birbalnsingh said our system is ' broken' - and actually doing the job he was elected to do - to ensure the excellent education of all children.Unfair admissions, the retention of grammar schools, whacky curricula in free schools, not to mention poor conditions for teachers in academies ( very interesting, that) all run counter to this aim.....

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 08:32

Oh and Fiona, a quick question for you re fair banding. I take all your points about truly fair banding as opposed to managing a favoured comprehensive intake but given that not all schools ARE going to be oversubscribed in all the ability bands ( and some even have 9 bands) how do you ensure fairness in that instance?

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 10:52

I don't think you can - and that is still one of the problems with banding systems across lots of schools where they still exist. I don't think there is a perfect system for managing parent choice and fair admissions but some are definitely fairer than others and there is no reason why an LA banding system can't work better than some current systems like those in Kent and Bucks where parents choice is perverted by school selection and disadvantaged children are shut out of the most successful and popular schools.

Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 13:01

Just to continue on banding for a second, Fiona, I'm wondering what you and others on the site think about those, like Peter Mortimore, who fear banding confirms children in their sense of academic success/failure, even if they are all heading to the the same school. After all, it is rather like a watered down version of the 11 plus in its way, telling a child that they are in a 'top' band or on level 8 or 9 or whatever...even if it's not spoken out loud, children still know how they are being labelled don't they? Is there any way round that - and ensuring fair admissions within a locality?

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 13:03

I don't know enough about schools where this works in practice to know whether they are routinely told which bands they were in. I think that may have happened under the old ILEA banding system ( with which Peter Mortimore was involved). However not sure if it is necessary to tell each student?

Sarah's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 20:50

As far as I understand it there is no requirement to tell parents which band their children are in but I imagine that it may not be possible to prevent parents from asking the question under FOI. If a child is refused a place because the band they happened to be in is oversubscribed at a particular school then they may be held in a waiting list in that particular band - in effect it may be necessary to hold as many waiting lists as there are bands - unless your policy says that you will do something else in the event of some bands being oversubscribed and others being undersubscribed.

Having undertaken some consultation on different admissions systems I have found that many parents don't understand fair banding - they muddle it up with selection by ability - and most find it too complicated to understand, too difficult to predict the outcome for their child (which in itself makes it problematic from the School Admissions Code perspective which says that admissions arrangements should be clear and enable parents to plan). Some local authorities dislike fair banding as they see it as 'social engineering', others see it as the only really fair way to achieve fair access. It works best in urban areas where it is used to allocate places to a number of different schools. But as others have pointed out Academies are their own admission authority and can set their own arrangements. I think few would adopt fair banding. Apart from anything else it requires the introduction of pupil testing in Year 5 something which not all schools undertake and which many feel children should not be expected to do simply in order to determine their priority for a secondary school place in a comprehensive school. The only other system which parents equally disliked was the use of random allocation (lottery). Parents seem to favour distance criteria, catchment areas and feeder primary schools even whilst acknowledging that rich parents can buy their way into the catchment area in some cases. The vast majority favour sibling priority.

It's interesting to note that the DfE are looking at 'simplifying' the admissions code, removing the requirement for admissions fora and reducing the powers of the schools adjudicator at a time when they are massively increasing the number of schools setting their own admissions criteria - most with no experience of managing admissions. One can't help but feel that policing this system is going to be a thankless task.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 20:57

There are lots of interesting comments here. Perhaps, the key thing is that we stop schools being their own admissions authority if we want to move to a fairer system.

Paul Hopkins's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 21:21

I fear Francis that this is just naivety. I believe nothing that MG says about anything. We have a neo-Thatcherite government where the twin 'gods' are choice and competition and all things will get better because of this - a McDonalds and Primark system. The evidence is strong that is countries where there is lower social divide there is more success and the UK with the private, the now pseudo-private and the rump system will be the highest divide of them all.

I wish I was not so despondent at this time but cannot see anything but dark times ahead.

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