What are secondary school banding tests?

What are banding tests?
They’re used to ensure schools admit pupils across a range of abilities, but how do banding tests actually work?

In some areas of the UK, children who are applying to secondary schools need to take banding tests to be considered for a place.

These tests, taken in Year 5 or Year 6, are designed to make sure schools are truly mixed ability, and mean your child has a fair chance of getting a place at the school of their choice.

What are banding tests?

Secondary school banding tests are used by some comprehensive schools to ensure they’re admitting pupils with a wide range of academic abilities.

Under the ‘fair banding’ system, all pupils who’d like a place at a specific school take the same test.

Their results are used to put them into an ability band, for example:

Band A (highest marks): 25% of children
Band B: 25% of children
Band C: 25% of children
Band D (lowest marks): 25% of children

The school will then offer places to equal numbers of children within each band to ensure they’re admitting an even spread of academic abilities.

How do banding tests work?

Fair banding is designed to ensure that children have a good chance of gaining a place at a school regardless of their academic ability or their family circumstances.

For example, in some areas, lower ability pupils (who often come from poorer families) may be less likely to gain a place at an outstanding or good school. This is because house prices tend to be higher near the most successful schools, which means low income families can’t afford to live in the catchment area.

Banding means that schools have to offer as many places to middle and lower ability children as to high achieving pupils.

Schools vary in how many bands they have. Some have just three; others have as many as nine. But regardless of how many bands there are, they are legally obliged to admit equal numbers of pupils from each band.

Being in a higher band doesn’t mean your child is more likely to get a place: schools are not allowed to use banding tests as a way of admitting more high ability children than low ability pupils.

Similarly, all children within a band have the same chance of being allocated a place; their individual test scores can’t be taken into account. If there are more children in a band than places available, schools will apply their oversubscription criteria (such as distance from the school or random allocation).

If there are fewer children in a band than places available, schools will offer those places to children in the adjacent bands.

Under the School Admissions Code, fair banding is considered good practice. However, a report from education charity the Sutton Trust pointed out that lower ability pupils may still be disadvantaged, as deprived families may be less likely to enter their children for the test.

How common are they?

Across the UK, around one in 12 schools uses banding tests, but the likelihood of your child having to sit the test depends on the area that you live in.

For example, in parts of inner London, almost all school use tests to allocate places, while in Yorkshire and Humber, only 18% do.

To find out whether a school you’re applying for uses banding tests, check their admissions policy, which should be published on their website.

What do banding tests involve?

Banding tests will vary from area to area, and from school to school. Some are set by an external exam provider; others will be devised by the school itself.

They are tests of cognitive ability, and children are tested in some combination of literacy, numeracy, verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills. There may be just one test paper or several, with tests taking around 40 minutes per paper. You’ll be notified of your child’s results by email.

In some areas, banding tests are taken before you apply for secondary school places. In this case, you’re likely to have to contact the school to register your child for the test.

In other areas, tests are taken after the application deadline. If you’ve listed a school that uses fair banding on your form, they will contact you with arrangements for the test.

In some local authority areas where the majority of secondary schools use fair banding, all children sit banding tests at their primary school, either in the summer term of Year 5 or the autumn term of Year 6. The results of that test are used to allocate places by all of the schools in the area.

In other areas, children must sit the banding test at the secondary school that they’re applying for, often on a Saturday.

Each school will have its own test, so your child may need to sit a separate test for every school they apply for.

How should your child prepare?

Banding tests are not pass/fail tests, and are designed to assess your child’s innate ability rather than their general knowledge or academic achievement.

Because schools have to take equal numbers of pupils from each band, there’s no advantage in gaining a high score, so children don’t need to prepare or train for the tests. They’ll usually be given a few practice questions before the test starts to help them warm up.

Does your child have to take the test?

It depends. If your child doesn’t take the test, some schools will assign them to a band based on an assessment from their primary school teacher. Others don’t offer any places to pupils who haven’t taken the test.

If you’re unsure, check the school’s admissions policy or FAQs to find out whether it’s necessary for your child to sit the test.