Ministers to stop schools selection by the back door

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Ministers are poised to bow to demands for strict new rules on school admissions to stop selection by stealth in the most popular schools.

Tony Blair will be told that the crackdown ­ either through tough new powers for an "admissions tsar" or a legally binding code of admissions for schools ­ is the price of getting his school reforms through Parliament.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, and her fellow ministers at the Department for Education and Skills are said to be convinced of the need for tougher measures to combat school selection by the back door. This has led to middle-class families stealing most of the places at the top-performing schools.

At present, it is understood that Mr Blair will be "on his own" if he fails to support a crackdown.

The momentum for a crackdown comes after claims that the Government's admissions policies are in disarray in the wake of the decision by Ms Kelly to give the London Oratory school ­ where Mr Blair sends his children ­ the green light to carry on interviewing parents to determine whom it selects. The school had earlier won a High Court ruling that it only had to have regard to a national code on admissions which said the interviews were " poor practice" and urged schools to abandon them. However, on the same day, she turned down a request from another nearby Roman Catholic school to do likewise.

The White Paper ­ which sparked a storm of protest from backbench Labour MPs ­ outlined plans for "busing" pupils from poorer homes to the better-performing schools in the more affluent suburbs.

Under it, they would receive cut-price travel to schools within six miles of their homes.

This is in the wake of research, notably by the Sutton Trust ­ run by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl ­ that the 200 top-performing state schools had far fewer pupils on free school meals than the rest.

Wealthier parents, it was argued, were better able to afford homes in the vicinity of the top-performing schools.

However, it would have left admissions policies in the hands of individual schools ­ who would be encouraged to opt out of local authority control and set themselves up as independent "trust" schools.

They would be barred from becoming selective through testing children ­ but opponents of the White Paper argue that they would still be able to select by the back door.

Two methods of ending this back-door selection were being canvassed yesterday.

One, backed in a report by the influential House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills, would be to make the code on admissions statutory ­ which would mean it was illegal for schools like the London Oratory to interview parents to determine their commitment to their faith.

The other would be to give greater powers to the independent " admissions tsar" ­ the Schools Adjudicator ­ who rules on admissions appeals by parents and whose decision that the London Oratory should stop interviews was overruled by the courts. Under this route, the "tsar's" ruling on admissions would be final. The tsar's powers would include ordering schools to give priority to children in care, children with special needs and ­ possibly ­ children in receipt of free school meals.

However, many backbenchers prefer the idea of the statutory code and ­ if Mr Blair fails to heed their demands ­ they will put an amendment down to the Schools Bill that will follow the White Paper in the new year.

One senior backbench MP said: "With an advisory code on admissions, we would never be able to achieve what we want to achieve on fair admissions.

"Movement on admissions is going to be the central area of debate over the next few weeks."

Mr Blair plans to make a keynote speech on Friday outlining the reforms.