How ballots and banding are shaking up school admissions

Random school place generator. Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-NC

As parents across England wait nervously for news of where their children have been allocated a secondary school place, new admissions policies of banding and ballots have come under scrutiny.

The recent Parent power? report for the Sutton Trust illustrated once again the myriad ways that advantaged families can try to secure a good education for their children.

Ranging from the downright dishonest to the simple exercise of economic power, the report identified the wide range of methods used to bag a desirable school place.

More than 30% of parents from the highest socio-economic group had moved to live in an area which they thought had good schools. Another 5% had bought a second home and used that address in order for their children to gain access to a specific school. And more than 5% had used a relative’s address in order for their children to gain access to a specific school.

Changing models of intake

Of course, most secondary schools continue to offer places to students’ siblings and to then rank applicants on the basis of proximity, feeder schools or a catchment area. For the most part access to schools is therefore driven by residential sorting.

But some school admission policies directly contribute to this process of differential access. The eleven-plus generally demands substantial private tuition for the candidate to stand a realistic chance of success.

Similarly, in some comprehensive schools, up to 10% of the intake may be selected on the basis of aptitude for a specialist subject such as music or sport. While a strong case may be made for enabling pupils with specialised talents to attend schools able to nurture those talents, it is undeniable that this route into school tends to favour more advantaged pupils.

Although there has been little change in the number of grammar schools in the past 30 years, the number of schools using partial selection by aptitude rose slightly from 133 in 2008 to 155 in 2012.

Over the same period, we have also seen growth in the number of schools using admission policies that actively pursue a socially or academically mixed intake. Brighton’s introduction of random ballots for some schools provoked much interest.

It’s a lottery

But since then, random ballots have been introduced in other, largely urban, schools. New research from the Sutton Trust on ballots and banding, found more than 40 schools in England were using this method in 2012. Ballots aim to prevent a single social group – rich or poor – from dominating a school’s intake just because they live nearby.

Random ballots are one answer to the problem of socially segregated schools and perhaps also to the property price hotspots beloved of estate agents. But ballots are not without difficulties.

Leaving aside the challenge of managing children’s expectations during the transfer process, the fact that ballots give an equal chance to all applicants may mean they attract distant applicants with the money and time to commute to school – that is, those from more advantaged households. The ballot may then fail to secure a broad intake after all. So random ballots need to be used in conjunction with carefully considered catchment areas.

And a fundamental problem with school admissions – and one made crystal clear by ballots - is that while the ranking procedure may be scrupulously fair, parents’ perception of fairness depends not only on the procedure but also on the equity of the outcome.

Bands of ability

Admissions based on pupil banding, through which children are grouped into different ability bands, attempts to address the fairness of outcomes rather than just processes. The Sutton Trust report found the use of banding has also increased from 2008 to 2012 – from 95 schools to 121 schools.

Potential entrants are placed in ability “bands” and a proportion of places at a school are reserved for each band. The aim is to enrol an intake reflecting a broad ability range. However, its effectiveness is dependent on the popularity of schools and their ability to attract applicants from across the ability range. But given the current conjunction in many areas of rising school standards and rising school rolls, now may be the best moment for the successful scale-up of banding.

Banding tends to be operated using distance to rank applications within each band. Consequently, it would still be possible for parents to buy their way in to a school, by purchasing or renting property nearby, albeit purchasing access to a school with a broad ability range.

School admissions work more smoothly, and more clearly in the interests of parents and children, when schools cooperate in setting their admission arrangements. According to the Sutton Trust report, this is especially evident in the case of banding when in some areas schools may collectively organise a single test for potential entrants, while in others pupils may be expected to sit numerous banding tests.

All school admission arrangements have their shortcomings and no single set of arrangements will be suitable for all areas. But even if random ballots and banding may fall short of enrolling a socially or academically mixed intake, the symbolic role of ballots or banding may have substantive effects.

By explicitly identifying a school’s commitment to providing comprehensive education, that commitment may also then provide a yardstick against which the school’s admissions may be assessed and reviewed.

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