Education: In a league of their own - or selective on the sly?

The 10 state comprehensives to come top in the GCSE and

A-level league tables published

on Tuesday have every reason

to bask in the glow of

well-earned success. But just how comprehensive are they?

Judith Judd and Lucy Ward report.

What is a comprehensive school? An analysis of the schools which come top suggests that the answer is complicated.

Teachers criticise the tables because they pit independent and state selective schools against comprehensives which, in theory, take pupils of all abilities. In practice, high-flying schools classified as comprehensives by the Government in its performance tables are often scarcely comparable with those which do badly.

Most of the schools in the top 10 comprehensives identified by this week's exam league tables have some form of selection procedure. None has as a first criterion for admission for all pupils the proximity of a child's home to the school.

The list includes two state boarding schools, three schools which chose many of the pupils in this year's GCSE cohort on the basis of parental letters stating their child's case for admission, two county schools which used interviews, a city technology college which tests applicants to ensure that it has pupils of all abilities, a Roman Catholic girls' school which interviews to assess families' religious commitment, and a school which now selects all pupils by interview but says it was comprehensive at the time this year's GCSE students were admitted.

To add to the confusion, the policy of five schools has changed in recent years in favour of increased formal selection.

The Coopers and Coborn Company School in Upminster continues to interview pupils to assess suitability for its particularly wide range of extra- curricular activities. They are looking for pupils who expect to do more than school hours.

Dr Davina Lloyd, the head, says: "We have a very distinctive ethos. We are looking for children who can best fit into the sort of school we are."

Since 1993 when the school went grant-maintained, pupils have also done tests in English and maths which count for 30 per cent of the assessment. "You can fail the test and you would still get in. This is not a grammar school by any stretch of the imagination," says Dr Lloyd.

Four of the schools in the top 10 list are in Hertfordshire, and, though three have now become grant-maintained, all were under county control at the time the latest GCSE cohort were admitted. The local authority's seven-stage admissions policy, still used by St Albans Girls' School, allows schools to select a significant proportion of pupils on the basis of a suitable match with a child's educational and other interests, expressed in a letter from parents.

The policy prompted protests earlier this year from some parents concerned that the system favoured middle-class parents able to fight for their children's interests.

Helen Hyde of heavily over-subscribed Watford Girls' Grammar School in Hertfordshire, which became partially selective two years ago and now sets admissions tests, takes issue with the labelling of schools as comprehensive or grammar.

Asked whether the school was fully comprehensive before introducing selection, she said: "That is not my label. This is Watford Grammar School for Girls and it has always been a traditionally academic girls' school." She points out that the vast majority of girls live locally.

Watford Grammar School for Boys chose pupils by interview until 1994 when the governors decided that it would be fairer to introduce official selection tests.

Hertfordshire and Essex High, which now selects 15 per cent of pupils according to aptitude for sport, drama and music, was not selective but operated under the Hertfordshire local education authority policy of parental letters.

The two mainly boarding schools on the top 10 list, Old Swinford Hospital in Stourbridge and Sexey's School in Bruton, Somerset, both insist that they are fully comprehensive and interview pupils simply to assess suitability for boarding, while Coloma Convent Girls' School in Croydon chooses pupils primarily according to church commitment "without reference to ability or aptitude".

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith now selects all its pupils using interviews, but at the time of entry of the latest GCSE cohort it was comprehensive, and followed Cumbria County Council's admissions criteria.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel College, in Gateshead, is different again. Like all City Technology Colleges, it is required by its funding agreement to use selection methods in order to admit pupils right across the ability range. Critics have suggested CTCs, founded by the Conservatives to boost achievement in inner city areas, manipulate the system to attract brighter pupils, a charge which is denied by Emmanuel principal John Burn.

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