Ministers may stop schools selecting pupils on ability

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The Independent Online

The Government is poised to perform a U-turn on school selection and scrap its policy of allowing its new flagship specialist secondary schools to select pupils.

The Government is poised to perform a U-turn on school selection and scrap its policy of allowing its new flagship specialist secondary schools to select pupils.

Stephen Twigg, the Schools minister, said yesterday that ministers were considering whether to drop rules which allow the majority of the 1,950 specialist schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils through aptitude tests.

The move follows damning criticism from the House of Commons Education Select Committee, which last week accused ministers of backing selection despite pledges from Tony Blair and other government figures to the contrary. The MPs on the committee said that allowing specialist schools to choose pupils made a nonsense of Labour's pre-election promise that there would be no more selection. Members called on the Government to come clean and scrap the policy.

Yesterday Mr Twigg, speaking at the Professional Association of Teachers' conference in Bournemouth, conceded that - if he were honest - he would have to admit he found it difficult to argue in favour of schools being allowed to select by aptitude in most specialisms.

"I can make a good case in some specialisms but a less good one in others," he said.

"I can see a pretty strong case for the opportunity that is given to a child who excels in sport or PE. The same can be said of music. With technology colleges, I would have to say I would have more difficulty in justifying the arguments which arise over aptitude in a way I would feel comfortable with in sports and music."

He added that his views were shared by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, and David Miliband, the minister for School Standards.

''We believe that the select committee report is a very important one,'' he said. ''We are considering their suggestion that the 10 per cent aptitude requirements be dropped.''

The row over school selection is one of the most bitter among Labour backbenchers, many of whom want to see aptitude and ability tests (used by the country's 164 remaining grammar schools) scrapped. They are pressing for a commitment to this in next year's election manifesto.

At present, the vast majority of the 1,950 specialist schools are allowed to select pupils on aptitude. The rule applies to all arts, technology, languages, music and sports schools - although only about 6 per cent take advantage of it. Every school will be allowed to put in for specialist status under the Government's five-year plan for the future of education.

Ministers insist that aptitude tests are different from the 11-plus ability tests in grammar schools which are used to select their entire intake on academic performance. However, the select committee disagreed.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "That sounds a very sensible approach from the Government - look at the evidence, consider it and respond."

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