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Explainer: What is ‘fair banding’ for secondary schools?

Battle of the bands. -bartimaeus-, CC BY-NC-ND

Banding is an attempt to mitigate some dangers arising from the way children are allocated to secondary schools. The characteristics of the children attending a school matter a great deal to all concerned. It is a sensitive issue, not least because there is the potential for conflicts of interest between schools, parents and local authorities (LA).

Parents often choose schools on the basis of the kind of children they want their children to mix with. While schools are accused of manipulating the admissions process to admit higher ability and more socially advantaged children because they are easier to teach and make the school more attractive to parents.

When the children a school admits are predominantly of high ability, most of them – not surprisingly – do very well in examinations and this reflects well on the school. But, if one school has the advantages of a higher proportion of the more able local children, its neighbouring schools will get a higher proportion of harder to educate children. This makes them more likely to be less and less popular with parents and in danger of being labelled as failing.

This process of segregation makes management of school admissions difficult. It may be potentially harmful to communities and is unfair to children attending the lower performing schools. In addition to moral and political arguments for more common schooling, there is evidence that when children of all abilities are educated together the attainment of the highest ability children does not suffer but that of the least able tends to improve.

For these reasons, some secondary schools use fair banding to ensure that the children admitted represent a range of abilities. It is currently only a small minority. A recent report by the Sutton Trust found that 121 out of more than 3,000 English secondary schools in 2012-13 are using banding, but this is an increase from 98 in 2008. They are more often found in London, and academies and free schools are more likely to use banding.

Stripping it down

So how does it work? Take a school that uses fair banding and that aims to admit 100 children from its local primary schools. When a child applies for a place, the school will, on the basis of the applicant’s performance in a test, allocate the child to one of usually five ability bands. The child will only be eligible for a place in that band.

Each of the five bands represents 20% of the places available for that year. So because this year’s planned intake is 100, only 20 applicants in each band will be offered a place.

If there are more than 20 eligible applicants in any one band, the school will apply their over-subscription criteria to offer a place to the 20 most eligible. They must first give priority to children with special needs statements and children in care. After those, the other criteria apply.

The most common are living in the catchment area, attending a feeder primary, having a sibling already attending, living within a certain distance from the school, or adherence to a particular religion. The mix of criteria can vary widely between schools. If the applicant is not eligible under these criteria they cannot be offered a place unless the school is under-subscribed overall, in which case the banding is relaxed.

Going solo or banding together

If the school has decided to go it alone, banding will only reflect the ability profile of the applicants to that school. That profile could be very different from the LA or the national profile and potentially starkly different from neighbouring schools.

If the school collaborates on banding with a group of neighbouring schools, all applicants to the collaborating schools are banded according to their scores on a common test. So our hypothetical school would offer up to 20 places in each band to applicants placed by the group test in those bands.

The intake will reflect the ability profile of applicants to all the schools and ensure that the intake of one school varies little from the intake of another. This is especially true where banding is adopted by all or most schools in a LA. Only four do so – all of them in London. They are Hackney, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham.

One downside of banding across an LA is that some applicants may be forced away from their preferred school if the band they are eligible for is full. The existence of grammar schools in an area makes it more difficult for its neighbouring schools who might wish to band to recruit to their highest ability band because the grammars will have taken the 25% most able from the finite local pool. It is also possible for any school, including the more independent faith schools and academies, to remain outside group banding arrangements.

Nevertheless, while fair banding is not a panacea and presents some problems of implementation, it is one of the best devices we have for improving local communities of schools by balancing intakes and reducing the harmful effects of ability and social segregation. It will be interesting to see if it becomes more widespread.

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