Thursday 27 February 2014

Banding and Ballots

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I revisit the case for banding and ballots 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, Banding and Ballots, provides 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.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Coding + creativity = careers?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I consider whether the new computing curriculum can help low and middle income students become tomorrow’s tech entrepreneurs.

It took some time for this government to embrace the importance of technology in education. Now that it has done so, it is making important changes to the curriculum, notably through the replacement of an ICT curriculum focused on office skills with a computing curriculum that teaches coding.

From 5, children will learn to code and programme, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system. The Design and Technology curriculum is also being modernised with the help of innovators like Sir James Dyson. At the same time new Tech level qualifications have been introduced to strengthen the quality of vocational qualifications available.

But is this enough to ensure that we are developing a generation of young people who can turn the computer literacy they acquire from the first touch of an iPad within months of leaving the pram into the opportunities that could provide them with a satisfying career? Already there are 1.3 million jobs in ICT, and many more that rely on it. In future, there will be many more as we increasingly use technology for our everyday tasks.

That was the theme of a fascinating Sutton Trust policy lunch which we held this week under Chatham House rules, where we brought some of the country’s leading experts on IT and education together with tech entrepreneurs and business people.

And if there was one area of consensus it was that the potential stifling of creativity in the curriculum is in danger of leaving us behind in a technology battle where European countries like Estonia and Ireland are racing ahead, not to mention places in East Asia, like Singapore, which are rapidly rebalancing their curriculum to marry knowledge with creativity and skills.

I have always felt that the creativity v knowledge battle in education was something of a phoney war. Being able to Google information requires some knowledge of context if you are not to make a fool of yourself. Equally, research skills and study skills are pretty much essential if you are going to acquire and use that knowledge.

But some of our lunch guests brought fresh eyes to this debate. One had seen how an unemployed young man with a love of rap music had been persuaded through his music to start creating apps and now trains others in the business power of digital technology. He had barely passed any GCSEs.

Another related how big IT firms like IBM are now as likely to recruit apprentices as university graduates, because they can train people more effectively on the job. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial head teachers who try to bring imaginative ideas like Biztown – where youth enterprise skills are brought to life – are told creating such an environment here would waste money.

And yet the PISA tests, on which the Government places so much weight, are as much a test of practical application as knowledge. Indeed, the next round of PISA will test collaborative problem solving. So, why aren’t we assessing this in our schools too?

Equally, there are real opportunities to improve professional development of teachers – still a major challenge as the quality of new teachers has been improved – through technology, just as there must be ways that peer-to-peer tutoring, a top scorer in the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit, could expand into this area. This isn’t pupil-centred learning, but given the greater familiarity so many young people have with technology, it could be pupil-led.

So, embracing technology with more rigour is only part of the story. Technology in the classroom was a bit of a slow burner, as early investment in the 1990s was in PCs, which are now rapidly being replaced by tablets. As one guest noted, this means that in the future old fashioned skills of dictation may be back in vogue as typing and keyboard skills become as obsolete as the fax machine.

So, there was plenty of food for thought, and some challenges to our thinking on education, not least in a week when too much of the education discourse felt a little passé. But for us, there were also important questions too.

Technology could be a great leveller, in that those with good tech skills are greatly in demand. But is there an easy link between those with the skills and those who need the skills? Many companies are still recruiting overseas because they find it hard to do so in Britain. Technology is breeding many new start-ups, not least in places like Tech City, but how do we link those with good ideas, but without the connections or the capital, with those investors who can help them realise their promise?

If we can answer those questions satisfactorily, perhaps technology could be an important lever for the social mobility of the future.