Time to Allow True "Fair Banding"

Henry Stewart's picture
In response to this morning's Sutton Trust report this post calls for two key changes in school admissions:

1) Banding should be encouraged and be truly fair, in that it should be able to be based on the distribution of ability in the local area (which is not allowed at the moment)
2) Whatever the nature of the school, admissions should be co-ordinated and organised by the local authority

The Sutton Trust report points out that the most successful comprehensive schools have below average proportions of the most disadvantaged students, and suggests "covert selection" is involved. It calls for the use of ballots of banding to "achieve a genuinely balanced intake".

As my colleague Melissa Benn has pointed out, it is intriguing how comprehensives are singled out about their selectivity rather than the far more selective grammar schools or private schools. However it has long been clear that a certain amount of covert selection is possible where schools are in charge of their own admissions. This has been the case for most faith schools, for foundation schools, for CTCs and - of course - now for academies.

Learning from Hackney

The majority of secondary schools in Hackney are now academies. However admissions are co-ordinated by the local authority. All Year 6 pupils sit just one CATs test to enable banding, admissions are submitted to the local education authority and they co-ordinate allocation of places - in line with each school's individual admissions policy.

It makes life simple, easy and clear for children and for their parents, and includes all equally. Putting local authorities in control of admissions for all state schools in their area would be a huge step towards fairness and away from covert selection.

In Hackney all schools also use banding. Each school decides how many ability bands it will use (some use 3, one uses as many as 11 bands). For each band the nearest students are selected but the use of bands ensures that, overall, students are admitted in a fair proportion according to ability regardless of what sort of area the school is actually based in. And, unlike with ballots, it still ensures it takes its intake from the local community.

At least that is the theory. The school where I am Chair has an Free School Meals intake (46% on the new DfE measure) that is well above the national average but below the Hackney average, and below that of most other Hackney schools. But if we wanted to change that, and make it more representative of Hackney as a whole, there is nothing we can do.

The reason is that a school can band on the basis of applications (ie, the ability of those admitted will be in the same proportion as those applying), as we do. Or it can band on the basis of ability nationwide. Given that CAT scores nationwide average 100 and those in Hackney average 96, banding on national figures will increase the ability of the intake of a school. (Most Hackney schools use application-based banding but Mossbourne has this year changed to banding based on national figures - therefore ensuring their intake is above the Hackney average.)

What I understand is not allowed is to base the admissions bands on ability in the local borough. If this were allowed, and all Hackney schools were to adopt it, then every school in the borough would have roughly the same intake in terms of ability.

Gove and "Fair Banding"

Michael Gove has spoken out in favour of "fair banding". My colleague Francis Gilbert quotes him at a meeting in March 2011 saying 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". It is great that he advocates this but there are two problems in practice: The first is that he effectively exempts academies by leaving the decision to them. The second is that he doesn't seem aware that the DfE does not allow banding based on ability across a borough.

I don't know if it would need a change in DfE policy or a change in the law to allow locality-based banding. And if I'm wrong, and the rules have been changed since our school last discussed it, please do let me know.

Does this get in the way of the much vaunted school autonomy? No, I am all for schools (and I mean all schools) having a fair degree of autonomy but having control of their own admissions should not be part of that. Let us ensure a fair playing field by tight control of admissions - by the local authority and ideally through genuine fair banding - and then let each school do the best it can for those students.
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