Fair Banding

Roger Titcombe's picture
The BBC News website on 2 June here carried an article about 'fair banding' admissions systems based on Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). This subject was taken up on 'School Improvement Net' on 3 June here.

"Some of the most disadvantaged children can lose out when schools use "banding" systems to try to ensure a broad mix of pupils".

"Under "fair banding", all children applying to a school take a test and are then divided into ability bands. The school then takes an equal number of children from each band."

"But the Comprehensive Future group says systems that rely on parents bringing their children [to the Academy] to be tested may "exclude" the most deprived."

"The latest survey, by Comprehensive Future, of admissions criteria in England found "a bewildering range" of policies, with schools selecting on faith, ability and "aptitude."

"There was also a wide variation regionally and within regions, it said." Comprehensive Future says the findings show the need for a thorough and wide-ranging review of how secondary admissions are operating in England, particularly as academies and free schools are able to set their own admissions criteria. The group backs calls for banding tests to be standardised across local authority areas and greater use of randomised ballots to allocate places. The BBC and School Improvement Net articles are right to draw attention to these issues, all of which are addressed in my forthcoming book.

In relatively poor areas where the mean CAT score is likely to be below 100, a banded admission Academy has a huge advantage over local unbanded LA schools. From the early years of Academies there have been two main routes to getting better GCSE results than local LA schools, leading to the much quoted PWC conclusion, 'Academies are improving twice as fast as LA schools', which became the reflex response from the Labour government at the time. The two routes are the vocational scam and unfair banded admissions arrangements.

Michael Gove appears to have closed off the first route but the second is in robust good health and continues to be exploited by Academy Chains. A banded Academy can achieve a mean national average intake CAT score of 100 while also ensuring that its bands are filled from the top down, leaving a large surplus of lower CAT score children (and children that did not take the tests) to be decanted into the local LA schools regardless of how near the Academy these children live.

This is a triple whammy against the LA schools and lower ability children. First, the very brightest pupils are creamed off into the top ability Academy bands. Second, the excess lower ability pupils are rejected by the Academy and forced into LA schools. Third, the mean CAT score of the LA schools is forced further down at the same time as that of the Academy rises towards 100, making LA schools less competitive and therefore forced to resort to other 'gaming' ever more ruthlessly, in the mad, bad pursuit of the illusion of improvement. See here, and here.

That is why the Sutton Trust and Comprehensive Future are right that a free-for-all where Academies, Free Schools and Academy chains are allowed to have any design of banded admissions system they choose, while LA schools are stuck with the LA's 'distance from school' priority system, is very unfair and unacceptable. They are also correct that fair banding is sound in principle as an effective way of ensuring balanced intakes between competing schools. However, they are right to note that even within a single, LA-wide uniform banded admission system, as in Hackney (the only LA to do this?), fair banding is still not completely fair for the reasons I set out in my book.

They are therefore right to insist that banded admissions systems should be uniform across all schools in an LA and be administered by the LA to prevent any maladministration. Appeals are a vulnerable area for this. The following is an extract from my forthcoming book.

The requirements for a common LA wide system of fair banding are as follows.

1. All the schools would have the same number of bands and the same band boundaries.
2. The band boundaries would be designed to provide equal size bands within each school based on the LA, rather than the national mean CAT scores.
3. Each school’s Admissions Criteria would be applied by the LA as part of the LA administration of the admissions system.
4. A common system for dealing with spare places and unfilled bands would apply.

A simple approach would be for a school with four bands and an Admission Number of 200 to operate band admission limits of 50 with excess applications in each band addressed through the oversubscription criteria in the admissions policy. The current legal status of Academies precludes the imposition of such arrangements by LAs. However, despite being less than ideal, the Hackney system is still a major step forward, in that it is better for pupils and schools than what happens in other many other LA areas, which is either banded Academies competing with unbanded LA schools (LA schools always disadvantaged), or unbanded LA schools competing with each other (advantages/disadvantages determined by catchment area demographics).

The Hackney system probably approaches the best possible within the league table driven market system. It provides all schools with a reasonably balanced intake and prevents schools becoming sinks in which full comprehensive provision is impossible, so removing the high stakes pressure from league tables, OfSTED and the threat of forced Academisation, that leads to gaming, which like a malignant virus, morphs into new versions each time the government introduces new regulations to combat the latest entrepreneurial gaming 'innovations' thought up by 'Executive' school management teams.
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Martin Richardson's picture
Tue, 03/06/2014 - 22:11

Roger, I have to admit that I was dubious about banding tests at first (several years ago) because I wrongly assumed they were something to do with selection. And we were thoroughly sick of them after my son had to take three banding tests (out of 6 school preferences on the list in London). Two of the banding tests were for schools in the same LA. I have no idea whether they were CAT tests, no information was ever offered.

However, if CAT banding tests produce properly comprehensive schools with a broad ability range intake I am in favour. I like the idea of tests which cannot really be ‘tutored for’ (apologies for the turn of phrase) and I strongly support comprehensive education, for which a balanced intake is essential.

Do you know how widely CAT testing is currently used? Would it be relatively simple to implement nationwide? And are the tests ‘tutor proof’? (The last may be the wrong question, as perhaps with fair banding tutoring would be somewhat pointless).

Of course, I am in danger of falling into the trap of assuming academic performance (i.e. exam grades, possibly only for ‘favoured’ subjects) is the only important thing. Are there other tests which can identify creative ability, physical skill, people skills and so on? These are equally important in the adult world and seem to have been lost in the education league table world.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 04/06/2014 - 08:12

Martin - The first point is that no test can ever be reliable for an individual child for many personal reasons, for example illness, distraction or disinclination to take the test seriously on a particular day. Therefore although the test results can be informative for parents and teachers a degree of caution in interpretation is always needed. However when it comes to cohorts of pupils the tests are very reliable in predicting all sorts of later school exam performance. SATs too have high correlations but the great advantage of CATs is that, as you point out, they are content free and cannot be revised or crammed for. They are also relatively cheap, simple to administer and take up only part of a single day.

For the purpose of obtaining balanced intake cohorts in secondary schools they are excellent and work well in Hackney, which to my knowledge is the only LA where there is a uniform system administered by the LA, but within which nearly all of the secondary schools, Academies and LA schools alike are voluntary partners.

Academies do not need to abolished in order to move towards a fair and rational education system. But they do need to be locally regulated in a way that promotes co-operation rather than competition.

CATs are a form of IQ test. The only way for primary phase teachers to prepare pupils for them is to adopt developmental teaching and learning strategies that increase general intelligence, which readers of my posts know is something that I believe to be plastic and which can be enhanced. In other words children can be developed to be cleverer, wiser and healthier, as well as knowing more stuff needed to pass exams.

I am far from alone in taking this view. The argument is set out in 'Learning intelligence' by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey (2002) Open University Press.

Many other educationalists and learning theorists also believe in such developmentalism, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what teachers in our present marketised education system feel they have to do to meet high stakes targets at KS2 and KS4. Repetition, cramming, incentive and reward based systems are in the tradition of behaviourism which although long discredited is making a strong comeback in the English system because of the perverse inentives arising from marketisation.

Other educationalists such as Guy Claxton are equally dismissive of behaviourism but express their developmental approaches in different terms.

If SATs were abolished to be replaced by universal Y6 CATs testing this would at the same time as laying a foundation for balanced admissions to all urban secondary schools would completely change for the better the culture of teaching and learning in our primary schools and especially in Y6.

I know it seems that I appear to be plugging my forthcoming book, but this is very much what it is about.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 04/06/2014 - 10:42

There are further advantages to universal CATs testing in Y6. These relate to educational standards and school accountability. The DfE and Ofsted systems have evolved ever more complicated 'dashboards' and attempts at 'value added' measures. They are all flawed not just on account of their complication but also because they are based on SATs, which, unlike CATs, are not statistically standardised, population referenced measures and they are susceptible to cheating and gaming.

This is what a secondary school that has intake CATs data should be doing with its Y11 GCSE results.

First list the Y11 pupil cohort in descending order of CATs score. Then in successive columns, for each GCSE subject mark the grade achieved by each pupil. This will show the pattern linking CATs scores and GCSE grade for each subject in your school, providing the starting point for a discussion between HoDs about comparative departmental performance.

Obviously this is a 'starting point' only but it would lead to a productive educational debate, based on evidence not presumption, about the comparative difficulty of different GCSE subjects and the efficacy of different departmental approaches including setting and mixed ability teaching as well as deeper pedagogic issues. This is what teachers and senior management teams should be talking about.

All of these data for each school should then be handed to the LA Quality Assurance/School Inspector-Advisor system (if it still has one). CATs are so well correlated to exam performance that for each subject it will be possible to discern the CATs score range that approximates to each grade threshold from A*-G. Thus the performance of each department in each school can be compared. If particular school departments are getting higher GCSE grades with pupils of lower CATs scores then they must be doing something right in terms of teaching for deep learning and developing the intellectual levels of their pupils. 'Plastic Intelligence' theorists like Shayer and Adey have shown that such intellectual gains are transferable across subjects, so this is a very important educational issue. Guy Claxton uses the term 'capacity for learning' and he too asserts that this is 'catching' from one subject to another.

All of this should feed into a culture of co-operative raising of standards for promoting deep learning (not just maximising C Grade passes for league tables and Ofsted) for all the schools in the LA with the QA inspector-advisors organising the debates and 'holding the ring' all in a non-threatening spirit of professional collaboration.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 04/06/2014 - 11:18

There is more. Despite the best efforts of a CATs score banded LA (like Hackney) it is not possible to prevent some schools obtaining a higher mean intake CATs score than others. Some of the reasons for this are related to market forces that still exist around parental preferences. Other reasons are more technical and are explained in my book. Within the league table system there will still be differences in aggregate exam results between schools.

However, for the first time, the LA at least, will know whether these reflect more effective teaching and learning or just higher mean CATs scores. This used to be done by the Cumbria LA until the Labour local politicians put a stop to it. You will find this described in my paper.

Titcombe R, Cognitive Ability and School Improvement, Practical Research for Education, Issue 36, 2006

This was the NfER 'house journal' that no longer exists. However past papers including mine can still be downloaded from the NfER website.

The point is that if all the schools in the LA are equally effective in terms of teaching and learning then the local GCSE league table will reflect the differences in mean intake CATs scores AND NOTHING ELSE. Note that we have already stated that all the schools are equally effective regardless of the league table position so there is no rational reason why a parent should choose a school at the top rather than at the bottom of the local league table. This being the case it should be clear that the league table serves no purpose whatever. Parents should be making their choices on the basis of other differences between the schools that require school visits and deeper parental questions.

Finally (for now at least) it is important to point out that although Y6 CATs data are invaluable for all school schools for the reasons I have given, not all areas need to have CATs driven fair banding. For example in many country towns there is only one school. So long as the LA uses its CATs data to ensure that standards are sufficiently high then all parents should be happy sending their children to the town school. Unless the local situation is complicated by religious schools.

CATs based fair banding is best suited for urban school systems where if a child fails to get a place in the school of first choice then another banded all ability school can be found not far away. I have already points out that in my system league table considerations can and should be ignored even now before league tables are eventually abolished.

What CATs based fair banding does for certain is prevent league tables causing sink schools. The lower bands of all schools can be full, so that no school ever ends up like Hackney Downs School.

This is what Maureen O’Connor wrote in the Independent of 16 September 1999.

"The 'market in school places meant that as Hackney Downs declined it received such a high proportion of boys with special needs that it became, in its pupil composition, closer to a special school than even a secondary modern.
Hackney Downs was a grotesque example of the market at its most vicious, making teaching and learning harder with each term. As HMI commented, there were children in the school who were beyond the remit of any normal classroom. The same market affected teacher recruitment and, by the end of its life, it was staffed almost entirely by young teachers in the first few years of their careers."

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