Education & Family

'Fair banding' for school places 'may harm poorest'

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Image caption Some comprehensives use banding tests to ensure their intake reflects the local population as a whole

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

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 be tested may "exclude" the most deprived.

Earlier this year a report from education charity Sutton Trust said the use of banding and random allocation, where places are decided by ballot, was increasing, particularly in London.

'Wider access'

The report welcomed the change, particularly in areas where schools were oversubscribed.

At the time co-author, Prof Anne West, of the London School of Economics, said: "While banding is not a panacea, it can contribute to creating more balanced intakes than would otherwise be the case."

The Sutton Trust report recommended schools co-ordinated locally to ensure "effective use of banding", with a common test to ensure pupils did not have to sit multiple tests.

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", alongside those attempting to get a comprehensive intake.

There was also a wide variation regionally and within regions, it said.

For example only 39% of schools in inner London did not select on the basis of faith or tests, compared with 82% in Yorkshire and Humber.

The group warns that banding "often seen as a fair and transparent way of ensuring that schools are comprehensive", is not always as reliable as it sounds.

"A confusing situation was found in which banding arrangements could differ from school to school even in the same local authority," it said.

"The number of bands used varies from three to nine.

'More hoops'

"In a few areas the test is taken by all children in their primary schools, but in most cases children have to go to the secondary school at a particular time to take the test.

"This eliminates a whole tranche of children whose parents do not, for whatever reason, bring them to be tested and is likely to exclude some of the most deprived and disadvantaged."

The survey report notes that children in London are far more likely to have to take a banding test.

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 more hoops children have to jump through to get into different schools the more unfair the system becomes," said the group's secretary, Margaret Tulloch.

Conor Ryan, director of research at Sutton Trust, said: "Our top 500 comprehensives have half the average number of pupils on free school meals, often because their catchment areas help those parents who can afford the high house prices to live nearest to these successful schools.

"If we are to enable a wider range of pupils to go to these schools, we need to open up admissions for at least a significant proportion of places through fair banding or random allocation.

"Of course, this must be done fairly and transparently, and it should be done in conjunction with improved outreach to less advantaged families and good transport links."

A Department for Education spokesman said its new Admissions Code was clear that "all school places should be allocated in a fair and transparent way."

Schools using either random allocation or banding tests must set out clearly how the systems will operate, said the spokesman.

"All reasonable steps must be taken to inform parents if these tests are taking place so they are able to make an informed choice of school."

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