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Michael Gove, banding, school admissions - and selection by ability

By Paul Goodman

GOVE MICHAEL RED TIE School banding works roughly as follows.  Eleven year-olds applying for school places sit a test based on the IQ system.  On the basis of its results, they're then divided into seven or nine ability groups.  The same number of children from each ability group are then given places at the school.  The practice is aimed at preventing richer families from monopolising school places, since it's founded on the presumption that better-off families tend to produce better results.  It's claimed that such families buy up houses within the school's catchment areas.

Banding thus invites the language of class war, although it tests primarily by ability, secondarily by income and only then by class itself.  "Middle class to lose its grip on best state schools," the Daily Telegraph declares this morning, picking up on a Michael Gove Today interview to which we linked yesterday.  Gove said that banding had “a role to play” and could make schools “truly socially comprehensive”.  He described the scheme by its other title, "fair banding" - a term that revives the debate, sparked off again by the contretemps earlier this week over the budget, over the concept of fairness and how it should be applied, if at all.

Gove's interview can thus be seen as a means of helping Nick Clegg - by giving the Liberal Democrats another interventionist policy to dangle before voters, claiming as they do so that their party's values are shaping the Coalition.  But the politics is far less important to parents and children than the consequences.  In the story, David Green, Civitas' Director, brands banding as “a kind of social engineering based on animosity to middle-class parents".  Earlier this week, Barnados supported it.  Cue further debate on the symptom (too few places in many good schools) rather than the cause (too few good schools in the first place).

What should a school do when it has too many applicants chasing too few places?  One answer is: allow it to expand (though that often won't help during the year in question).  Another is: let it select by ability.  That's the basis of the selective system that applies in Buckinghamshire - including the Wycombe constituency that I represented until recently - and elsewhere.  The Party's resistance to allowing selection more widely seems to me to be based fairly and squarely on politics: it believes that voters simply won't accept the practice.  Another means is: ballots - which are, of course, arbitrary, and therefore unpopular.

The best long-term means of dealing with the problem is for government to answer the second question - in other words, ensure that more good schools come into being and, in doing so, spur the present ones to become better.  And that's one of the Government's flagship policies, upon which Gove is set.  Along with the other parts of the Coalition's programme of radical public service reform, it's one of the main incentives to support the Coalition with a spring in one's step.  But it doesn't answer the more short-term first question, which will always persist to some degree, about how to tackle the demand and supply imbalance for places.

It's vital to grasp that Gove is not, repeat not, decreeing that schools must use banding in these circumstances.  He's simply recommending the practice: the Telegraph quotes "a source close to Gove" as saying “We are not telling any school to use fair banding nor are we telling them not to".  This is precisely why the National Union of Teachers has criticised the Education Secretary, claiming that voluntary banding would produce "real unevenness" (for unevenness, read schools running themselves, rather than being run by the NUT).  But the question will persist: how can schools be truly free to run their own admissions policy, if they can't choose to select by ability if they wish? 


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