Some of the country's best-known independent grammar schools are ready to join the state sector – provided that they can continue to select their pupils.
Graham Brady, a Conservative MP who has championed grammar schools since being elected to Parliament in 1997, said many headteachers had let it be known in private that they were willing to abandon their fee-paying status.
"They don't want to charge money for their pupils," Mr Brady, MP for Altrincham and Sale, told The Independent. Some are former direct-grant schools which, in the 1970s, went private rather than be forced to abandon selection under Labour's pro-comprehensive drive. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is encouraging private schools to join the state sector either as free schools or academies. One, Batley Grammar, has already done so. However, in line with Conservative policy, they can only do so if they take in all-comers.
"If independent schools want to become academies, they have to become a comprehensive," Mr Brady said. "That seems wrong. You wouldn't be increasing the amount of selection in the country if you allowed them. Good schools should be opened up to as many people as possible."
Mr Brady would also like to see the Government drop its insistence that applications for free schools will be accepted only if the schools are non-selective. He raised the issue in the Commons when the legislation to permit free schools was being debated. "All political parties say 'We believe in parental choice'," he said. "So why are we saying you can only have a free school if it is not selective. Surely if the parents want a selective school, they should be allowed to have one."
There are 164 grammar schools and only a handful of local education authorities – such as Trafford, which includes Mr Brady's constituency – are fully selective. Current government policy, and Labour policy as well, is that there should be no new selective schools, although existing schools can expand.
"It seems perverse to say, 'We have these excellent schools and we will defend them where they are but if you don't have any in your area we're damned if you're going to have any of them'," said Mr Brady, who resigned as shadow minister when his party was in opposition after his party's then education spokesman David Willetts said grammar schools were widening the gap in performance between rich and poor pupils.
Critics of selection – including teachers' leaders and Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs –say 11 is too early an age to decide a child's future.