A battle for the brighter pupil

Selection in state schools is back on the agenda. Judith Judd explains why, and Lesley Gerard meets an lite girls' stream in a low- income area
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When Manchester Grammar School floated its proposal to return to the state sector last week, there was a flurry of excitement. If one of Britain's leading independent schools wanted to go back to the state fold, could the rest be far behind? But the snag - a cost to the public purse of around £5m a school - was soon plain. The Prime Minister was quick to douse speculation about a revival of direct-grant grammar schools.

The scheme, however, is a child of its time. Both Labour and the Conservatives are dissatisfied with comprehensive schools. Selection is back on the agenda.

It is not hard to see why. To work, comprehensives need to attract a reasonable spread of pupils of different backgrounds and abilities. In many places, this has proved difficult. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, who sent his own children to a struggling inner-city comprehensive, spoke earlier this year of the challenge posed by ghetto schools to disadvantaged pupils and the concentration of middle-class ones in suburban schools.

What is the remedy? One, adopted by some schools in the London borough of Wandsworth, is to select some pupils by an entrance test and so ensure a better mix of pupils. Graham Stapleton is head of Graveney School, which this year decided to reserve half its 250 places for pupils who scored best in an entrance test. Mr Stapleton, who was attacked by some parents for denying places to local children, contends that most local children have still been offered places and that he has simply ensured a balanced intake of pupils. He aims to stem the flight of pupils to private schools and to other Wandsworth schools.

Another answer to growing doubts about comprehensives is to select pupils, not on academic ability, but for particular talents. The Government is backing plans for technology, modern language and sports schools. Wandsworth already has technology and language schools. Such schools do not produce "a balanced intake" - sports school pupils are unlikely to be as academic as language school ones - but they may help to address parental dissatisfaction with all-in comprehensives and spread children of different backgrounds more evenly through the system.

The difficulty in Wandsworth is that decisions about whether to select pupils or specialise have been left to individual schools. Just two old- fashioned comprehensives remain. The danger is that they will find themselves with the pupils no other school wants. In short, they will fail to secure the mixed-ability intake that experts believe is the essential ingredient of a successful school.

The most notable attempt at achieving a balance of pupils was the system of banding pupils tried by the Inner London Education Authority, disbanded five years ago. All pupils took a test in their last year of primary school and each secondary school was allocated 25 per cent of above-average pupils, 50 per cent average and 25 per cent below average. According to Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, it worked. Schools had their balanced intakes and there were few grumbles from parents.

There are objections to banding. The first is that some children have to travel to a school which is not their local one. This may be less practical in a rural county than a big city. The second is that a system devised in the Eighties under which a local authority allocates pupils to schools may be hard to sell in the Nineties when the notion of parental choice is paramount.

Yet the present arrangements for school allocation are, in many parts of the country, a lottery with parents lobbying to get into the best comprehensive just as frantically as they lobbied to get into grammar schools.

Perhaps the least controversial way of addressing inequalities between schools would be to leave school admission policies unchanged but to introduce setting, in which pupils are put in different groups for different subjects. Mixed-ability teaching has been responsible for much of the anxiety felt by middle-class parents about comprehensives, but many teachers resist the division of pupils according to ability on the grounds that it demoralises low achievers. Research into streaming (in which pupils are in the same ability group for all lessons) 30 years ago showed that it depressed rather than raised standards. Setting could be more acceptable to both parents and teachers.

Mr Blunkett wants to reinvigorate comprehensives. No easy solution is on offer but state secondary schools at the beginning of the 21st century will almost certainly look very different from those at the end of the 20th.