Comprehensive school campaigners accused ministers of introducing selection by the back door with their proposals to increase the number of specialist schools from 258 to 300.
About 10 per cent of children for the schools specialising in technology, sport, music or arts will be selected on aptitude.
Specialist schools were set up by the last government to offer parents more choice. Ministers say that their scheme is different because specialist schools will have to share their facilities with neighbouring schools.
They argue that these schools, coupled with plans to send very bright primary children for lessons in secondary schools, are a way of modernising comprehensives and of keeping middle-class pupils in state schools, especially in the inner-cities.
Masterclasses for primary pupils in specialist schools will begin next September.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, told the Technology Colleges Trust last night: "Specialist schools are at the heart of my vision - and that of the new government - of an education system where education caters for the individual strengths of children rather than assuming a bland sameness for all. Some people were surprised that the Government wanted to continue the specialist schools programme. We welcomed this great opportunity to further the causes of school improvement and school diversity.
"Comprehensive education must modernise. It cannot forever be stuck in the past - what some might see as a Sixties time warp. High and improving standards, setting by subject ability and the ability to foster specialist talents must all be part of the way forward."
A secondary school must raise pounds 100,000 sponsorship from private sources if it wishes to apply for specialist status. Successful schools receive a capital grant of pounds 100,000 and pounds 100 per pupil per annum for three years.
The Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, the parents' pressure group for comprehensives, produced a letter from Estelle Morris, the schools minister, admitting that there was no published research showing that specialist schools raised standards.
Margaret Tulloch, of the campaign, said: "We support the Government's principle that no unfair privileges should be attached to a particular category of schools. To adhere to this principle there must be no selection.
"Ministers don't realise the extent to which if they call one school specialist the others become less special. It will be very difficult to make schools share resources."
Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "This has to be a return to selection.
"What is now called bland sameness a couple of decades ago used to be called equality of opportunity."Reuse content