A small but growing number of schools, mainly sponsored academies, are using ability banding or random allocation (ballots) as part of their admissions criteria, according to new Sutton Trust research published today.

The research by Professor Anne West, Dr Philip Noden and Audrey Hind at the London School of Economics, comes as hundreds of thousands of parents await the results of their secondary applications next Monday (3rd March). Ballots and Banding examines the admissions policies of England’s 3000 state secondary schools and academies in the 2012/13 school year.

The researchers show that the main admissions criteria continue to reflect how near pupils live to the school (distance) or whether they already have brothers and sisters attending (sibling). However, the number of schools using banding – where pupils are tested and placed in different ability bands intended to provide a comprehensive intake – increased from 95 in 2008 to 121 in 2012/13. 42 schools were using random allocation in 2012/13.

This growth in the use of banding and ballots seems largely to have been driven by sponsored academies and free schools, which can set their own admissions policies. 17% of sponsored academies used one or both criteria, compared with 5% of all comprehensives.

The number of schools allocating places according to aptitude or ability in music, sports or other specialist subjects has increased from 133 (5%) in 2008 to 155 (6%) in 2012. The admissions code allows comprehensive schools to allocate 10% of their places in a specialism. This criterion is used by one in ten academies.

Research by the Trust last year showed that the proportion of pupils on free school meals in the 500 comprehensives with the best GCSE results was only half the national average. Other Trust research in December showed that a third of professional parents had moved house to be near a good school.

Conor Ryan, Director of Research and Communications at the Sutton Trust said: “It is encouraging that more schools and academies are using banding and ballots as a way to get a more balanced intake. But it is important that in doing so they are sensitive to local circumstances.

“Access to the most popular comprehensives should not be limited to those who can afford to pay a premium on their mortgages or rents. We believe that more urban schools should use such methods, but for them to be most effective, they should develop them in partnership with other schools and local authorities.

“A common fear of such approaches is that children living next door to a school may not get admitted. It is possible to address such concerns by using an inner and outer catchment area, with those living closest to the school in the inner area, but access opened to a wider group of parents in the outer catchment. This is an approach taken by some schools and academies already.

”Where schools use criteria other than distance or sibling, parents should be made more aware of their rights to free transport to a choice of schools if their children are eligible for free school meals.”

Professor Anne West, Director of the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics said:  “Banding could have the greatest effect on creating balanced intakes in areas where schools are popular and school rolls are rising.  While banding is not a panacea, it can contribute to creating more balanced intakes than would otherwise be the case.  The use of banding or random allocation conveys a school’s commitment to providing comprehensive education and so may provide a yardstick against which the school’s admissions may be assessed and reviewed.”

In the report, the Sutton Trust recommends:

  • More schools take the opportunity to introduce random allocation (ballots) or banding to ensure wider access to the most academically successful comprehensives. Ballots can ensure that a broad mix of pupils has the possibility of attending a school, whilst banding can create an intake across the ability spectrum.
  • Schools cooperate to ensure effective use of banding. Local co-ordination could be achieved through a local admissions forum or through the local authority.  Groups of schools should be encouraged to develop a shared approach to admissions across an area.
  • Schools that wish to achieve a comprehensive intake should use random allocation, in conjunction with a catchment area, or banding as these admissions policies can help schools to achieve an intake reflecting a wide ability range.  One way of doing this, while making sure that those who live very close to schools are not unduly disadvantaged, could be to introduce both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas.
  • Where banding is used, a common test should be developed for all schools in an area so that pupils don’t have to sit multiple tests.
  • The Government work with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses to help all parents access a rich range of information to make informed choices about their children’s education.
  • It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for free school meals.

The researchers highlighted examples of how banding and random allocation (ballots) are being used in practice.

Cllr Rita Krishna, Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services at Hackney Council, said: “We’ve been using banding across Hackney schools for a number of years, and it currently operates across ten schools, including six academies and a free school. We find it’s an effective method of ensuring that schools take children across the ability spectrum and in Hackney we’ve found that contributes to better results for all. As a local authority we work with schools across the area to make sure every pupil takes one test. This means that that they aren’t overburdened with multiple tests for different schools.”

David Boyle, Principal of Dunraven School in Streatham, London said: “We started banding to make sure we had a properly comprehensive intake at our school. We wanted to represent the area we serve and that’s only possible if our student body reflects the ability range in our area. Banding has not stopped us being a community school, it’s made us a better school for our community. 53% of students at our school are eligible for the pupil premium, which means they come from the least advantaged backgrounds.

“Everyone is better off now – we cater for Oxbridge applicants as much as those who face educational challenges. Using banding has ensured equality of opportunity in the applications process and our school is now outperforming national averages on all measures; students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are served very well by the school, with positive value added ratings across the range of ability.”


  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  • The report Banding and Ballots Secondary School Admissions in England: Admissions in 2012/13 and the Impact of Growth of Academies by Dr Philip Noden, Professor Anne West and Audrey Hind is available on the Sutton Trust website.
  • For this report, the researchers analysed the stated admissions policies for 3,001 comprehensive secondary schools in England in the 2012/13 school year. They compared the results with an earlier survey that had conducted for the 2008/09 school year. Data on random allocation was not recorded in 2008.
  • The Sutton Trust report Selective Comprehensives, highlighting the social selectivity of the Top 500 comprehensives is available online here and the report Parent Power? is available here.

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