Schools plan attacked by critics as 'social selection'

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Education Editor

Popular schools should be able to use home-school contracts on behaviour and attendance to select pupils, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, proposed yesterday, after John Major revealed at the weekend that the Government wants parents to sign formal contracts with schools.

Mrs Shephard, who outlined plans to give schools more freedom in selecting pupils, said that willingness to sign a contract could be helpful in deciding which pupils should be admitted.

The proposals increase to 15 per cent from 10 per cent the proportion of pupils that schools can select, without Mrs Shephard's permission, and change government guidance saying that pupils should not be selected by interview.

The local authority-funded Local Schools Information said the proposals may face a legal challenge as the Secretary of State's permission must be sought for any "significant" change in a school's character. The new guidance will affect mainly the 1,100 grant-maintained schools. Only a handful of local authority schools have taken advantage of the right to select 10 per cent of their pupils.

Mrs Shephard said: "The removal of large areas of prescription reflects our belief that schools and not the Department for Education and Employment are best placed to decide on admissions arrangements which reflect the wishes of parents and the community."

The Government did not, however, intend to make such contracts binding and compulsory in the first instance, Mrs Shephard said on BBC Radio 4's The World at One yesterday, but wanted to "give the whole thing a real boost".

Labour, which has accused the Tories of stealing its idea of home-school contracts, said it wanted to use contracts to improve standards and behaviour, not as a way of selecting pupils. Local authorities, now mostly Labour controlled, said they were unlikely to sanction the use of contracts or parental interviews to select pupils in schools under their control.

Critics have accused the Government of introducing "social selection" by abandoning the restriction on interviews introduced two years ago.

The circular says schools and local authorities may use any lawful criteria when deciding admissions. However, academic ability or aptitude should only be used when this is laid down in the admissions arrangements.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "At least the 11-plus was open and reasonably objective. Today's announcements, particularly on parents interviews, herald selection on social grounds by accent or the size of the family car."