Who will opt for social selection?

Banned from interviewing prospective pupils, will GM schools try to vet parents instead? Sarah Strickland interrogates the headteachers
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The Independent Online
Tales are rife of grant-maintained schools covertly seeking to select brighter pupils by interviewing them and their parents. Fuelled by news that the Government is to drop its advice that it is better not to interview potential new pupils, the wraps are coming off the horror stories about interviews - parents being cross-examined about their jobs, holiday destinations and commitment to the Parent Teacher Association.

But how true are they and how much will change with the new rules? Interviewing pupils takes a great amount of time and only a minority of GM schools currently does it.

John Wilkins, chairman of the Association of Heads of Grant Maintained Schools and head of Stantonbury Campus school in Buckinghamshire, says: "I think there's an enormous exaggeration of the situation. It's quite clear that the majority of GM schools are comprehensive and intend staying so." His own school opted out of local authority control to avoid becoming selective and none of the pupils are interviewed.

Tony Bush, who conducted research at the University of Leicester in 1992 into the first 100 GM schools, is not convinced. He found that 30 per cent of the 66 schools which responded were engaged in some form of selection, mostly by interviewing but in some cases by testing.

"My guess is that the proportion has increased and will continue to do so while there is pressure on heads to adjust their intakes," he says.

Almost 1,100 schools have opted out. Of those, 95 are fully selective. How many of the remaining 1,000 comprehensives interview is unknown. In fact, because each GM school agrees its admissions standards individually with the Secretary of State, the range of procedures is bewildering.

Not even all the selective schools operate the same policies. Some select entirely on test results, some interview all candidates, some only see borderline cases and some leave it entirely to the local authority. Not all religious schools interview, either, having decided that a letter from the parish priest is proof enough of religious commitment. Some, such as St Francis Xavier's College in Liverpool, give most places automatically to pupils from their feeder schools but interview them all anyway. Others, such as the London Oratory, interview each pupil with his parents, to assess "whether the aims, attitudes, values and expectations of the parents and boy are in harmony with those of the school".

Ringing round a number of non-selective GM headteachers revealed a perplexing variety of responses. Some simply said they did not conduct interviews and were opposed to them. Adam Leech, head of Bohunt School in Hampshire, said he regarded the practice as "unhelpful, unfortunate and not in the best interests of the education system". Governors had made it clear to parents that the school would remain a local community school and that decision was "inviolate".

Some heads said they couldn't possibly interview because it was "illegal" to do so, while others talked frankly about how they went about it.

Simon Danes, tutor for admissions at the Bishop's Stortford High School in Hertfordshire, interviews about 100 candidates and their parents, who have listed all the reasons why they want a place at the school. "You could say that if you have to argue a case, you are more likely to do that well if you are articulate," he says. "But we are not allowed to take that or ability into consideration. When you have a surfeit of people fulfilling one criteria you go on to the next."

Cooper's Company and Coburn School in Essex sets written tests in maths and English as well as conducting interviews. There is a five-page application form, to be filled in mainly by the child, and the first criteria for admission is listed as "intellect and potential". Dr Davina Lloyd, the new head, says the school used to be voluntary aided so it "had a bit more leeway". Despite its position at the top of the Havering league table this year (with 92 per cent gaining five or more GCSEs), she insists that selection is not based on academic ability. "It's true we don't have many at the lower end, but it's a very residential, commuter-belt area."

The variety is bewildering, the national picture unclear. As John Fitz, a senior lecturer in education at Cardiff University who has done research in this area, says: "It's all a bit of a muddle. As far as interviewing goes, there are all kinds of defences you can make, but in the end parents who are able to decide what the school wants and present their case well are bound to stand a better chance."