Last week the Sutton Trust published research by Philip Noden, Anne West and Audrey Hind of the LSE. The research, which looked at admissions criteria of secondary schools for the 2012 September intake, is largely an update of the research done by the authors for the Research and Information on State Education Trust (RISE) in 2008. The researchers examined prospectuses for 3001 secondary schools, which were operating before the current School Admissions Code was in place. One important change introduced in the new Code allows the Secretary of State to give permission to academies including free schools to vary the requirement to comply with the Code. The report has an informative explanation on how banding works, a description of how it operates in three areas and a very useful summary of historical and policy context relating to secondary school admissions.
The report’s particular focus is on banding and random allocation (balloting) for school admissions. It found that distance and sibling criteria remain the predominant oversubscription criteria for non-selective state schools. Only 5% of comprehensives were using either banding or random allocation for the 2012 intake.
The current Code allows three systems of banding – to produce an intake representative of the range of ability of applicants to the school or the range of ability of children in the local area or the national ability range.
The research shows that 4% of schools (121) were using banding compared to 3% (95) in 2008. Of the 121 schools using banding 83 were in London, however there were 37 local authorities had at least one school using banding of which 18 were outside London.
The research has a detailed analysis of the effect of banding and the different types used, including the historical development of banding. The researchers looked at three areas. In all three the banding test was taken in the primary schools rather than having to attend the schools to take the test. This is seen as less stressful for children and families. Children are put into usually 4 -5 ability bands. In none of the three areas were all the schools using banding, in particular faith schools did not. Interviews with headteachers and local authority officers revealed a range of views about the value of banding.
Even though taking the test at primary schools is better than children having to sit several tests at different schools it does not mean that outcomes are the same. Much depends on what happens then. The authors define local or area wide banding as where the planned admission number of the school is distributed across the ability bands in proportion to the profile of the local area. But in all the areas examined, although the children all took the same test in their primary schools and were put in bands some schools then banded the applicants to the school using what the authors define as ‘proportionate banding’.
Here the proportion of places at a school is determined in proportion to the attainment level of those who express a preference for the school rather than purely in proportion to the local area. The authors commented that this proportionate banding method is sometimes described as ‘fair banding’. Also some of the schools required pupils to sit their own banding tests at the school. This was criticised as inconvenient for parents, demanding of children and wasteful of resources. If proportionate banding is used it could mean that the same applicant could be in different bands for different secondary schools. The use of this type of banding could result in what the authors call ‘herd rewards’ giving greater influence on admission outcomes to parental preferences. For example if a larger proportion of parents applying has children with higher attainment then there will be more offers to higher attaining pupils and this will be reflected in the intake.
The authors recommend that pupils should sit only one banding test and that should be valid for any school using banding to which parents apply.
The research does not consider the effect on children of banding compared to random allocation. Peter Mortimore’s recent article refers to the damaging labelling which results from of any form of selection including banding
The Code allows selection of up to 10% of the intake by ‘aptitude’ in physical education or sport, performing arts, visual arts or languages. Selection on aptitude in technology is allowed in schools which had done so since 2007. The researchers found that partial selection by aptitude had increased from 5% (133 schools) to 6% (155) since 2008. This form of selection was found more in academies, 10% of academies selecting on aptitude.
The authors refer to research on random allocation some of which indicates that parents of higher attaining pupils are more likely to enter a ballot. They also quote evidence that it can result in more academically balanced intakes.
Random allocation was not monitored in 2008. Random allocation was used by half of secondary schools as a tie break. Few schools as yet are using it as an admission criterion. The researchers found 42 schools using it for the 2012 intake. 2% of comprehensives were using random allocation, which includes 3% of academies. 6% of sponsored academies and free schools use ballots.
Some schools use banding and balloting, and some examples are quoted. The conclusion however is that using both methods may be less effective in ensuring a comprehensive intake than using one in isolation. The researchers also provide examples of how schools are using random allocation, combined with catchment areas with inner and outer zones.
There are many interesting findings apart from the focus on banding and balloting. 13% of schools require parents to fill in supplementary information forms. 39% of academies with a religious character did not use any religious oversubscription criteria. On the other hand some faith schools are using up to 16 different religious criteria. Most grammar schools appear to use test scores as a threshold then ranking applicants by other criteria such as distance.
Need for coordination
The researchers as in their previous research found that there is need for greater coordination. They found one town where five different feeder schools and distance criteria were used whereas in another local authority all 22 schools used the same admissions criteria. They also found differences in the quality of information provided by the local authority prospectuses some making it easy for parents to see the criteria for all schools, others requiring parents to search it out even though the prospectus are intended to provide information on all local schools. Sutton Trust like Comprehensive Future argues for a role for the local authority or local admission forums in coordination.