Conor Ryan considers the implications of this week’s Sutton Trust report on the growth of banding and random allocation in school admissions.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents will learn which school their eleven year-old children will attend this September. For many, it will be their nearest school, and that will have been their first preference too. But for a significant minority, particularly in urban areas including London, the admissions system will have been fraught with anxieties and complexity.

Today’s London School of Economics report for the Trust, Ballots and Bandingprovides the most detailed examination to date of the admissions policies of England’s 3000 secondary schools and academies since the move to greater independence by a majority of English secondaries. Examining admissions policies for 2012/13, it reveals a small but growing enthusiasm, notably among sponsored academies, for approaches designed to achieve a more comprehensive school intake.

If the weekend press is to be believed, this development has provoked a mixture of fear and fury among the middle classes, and perhaps too among estate agents who are happy to jack up the prices of homes in the catchment areas of popular schools. Yet those middle class parents who don’t live in what are often narrow catchments for good schools may not feel so aggrieved, and those from less advantaged homes who can’t afford to do so could benefit significantly.

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. A further 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.

Today’s research follows reports by the Trust last year which 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.

There are two reasons why popular urban schools adopt these approaches, both of which have been explicitly allowed in the statutory admissions code since 2008, though the 2012 Code has tried to limit area-wide ballots. The first is to ensure that successful schools are not simply open to those wealthy enough to live in a catchment area entirely based on distance from the school. The second is used to ensure a good social mix in schools that have traditionally only drawn students from less advantaged circumstances.

But in doing so, they run up against the argument that such policies are unfair because a child living opposite the school might lose out. That’s why many of those using banding or ballots 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 like Mossbourne Community Academy, in Hackney, which has 30% of its pupils on free school meals.

Of course, as the researchers point out, no system is perfect; there is no panacea. Purists would argue that area-wide random allocation would achieve the fairest mix, though that is ruled out in the code as a principal criterion and would be controversial. But a realistic approach recognises that systems which balance issues such as proximity to the school with more open and fairer admissions are more likely to win local support.

That said there are some clear principles that we recommend, building on the interviews that the researchers conducted for the report. The first is that a cooperative approach to admissions – as in Hackney, for example – can work well. In that borough, ten schools including academies and free schools, use banding. But there is a case for children having access to a single banding test, so they don’t have repeat tests. The absence of testing makes random allocation more attractive, though both produce similar results.

However, the effectiveness of any system will depend on who applies to it. So whatever system is used, it is important that there is outreach to less advantaged families, and that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but also of their rights to free transport (clauses 95 and 96) 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.

Fair admissions are never easy, and no system is going to be perfect. But so long as some schools are more successful than others, it is important that opportunities to attend them are not limited to those with the deepest pockets. Today’s figures suggest that a small but growing number of schools and academies are trying to avoid do just that.

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