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.