Under new rules, the team of 16 independent adjudicators can order changes in admissions arrangements and end partial selection. Supporters of the policy say the dice are heavily loaded against schools that have raised standards. Opponents say the present arrangements bar children from their local schools if they fail the entrance tests.
Parents are furious that children with learning difficulties have to travel miles because they have been refused admission to their local school. The previous government allowed some schools to select up to 50 per cent of pupils by ability. Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for State Education, the parents' pressure group, said: "These will be landmark decisions. Other parents who are considering a complaint will be guided by what happens."
Supporters of selection are gloomy. They say that the Government has framed the rules so that they do not have to take the political flak for closing high-profile, popular grammar schools, which select all children by ability.
By contrast, the criteria for ending partial selection make clear ministers are prepared to sacrifice these schools to placate the Labour left. The rules say the adjudicator must take into account issues such as whether local pupils who could otherwise expect to be admitted to the school are being denied admission and whether other schools are suffering because able pupils are being creamed off.
Malcolm Grimston, chairman of the education committee in the south London borough of Wandsworth, said: "The rules have been framed to catch those schools which only select a proportion of their children. Many local parents will find this unfair, particularly as those with children at a partially selective school will not be given a voice. Grammar school parents will be able to take part in a ballot on the future of their school. These schools are every bit as successful as grammar schools that, it seems, are being protected from change."
But John Valentine, a member of a Wandsworth parents' group that has complained to the adjudicator, has a daughter who will apply to secondary school next year. Graveney, his nearest school, selects 50 per cent of its pupils on ability. "Half the children get in as a result of the test and the other places are filled up by siblings, so no places are awarded on locality. Children are coming from farther and farther away, while those who live close to the school can't get in.
"The Government has started a walk-to-school campaign but here we are exporting our pollution [through the school run] and importing other people's." He said one child with learning difficulties who lived near Graveney was forced to take two bus rides and a walk to reach a school in Battersea.
The Department for Education says it does not know how many schools select some of their pupils. Complaints over partial selection have been received from Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Wandsworth. Hertfordshire parents have campaigned against partial selection. Last year a thousand parents had not been offered a school place by last March because the rest were holding on to several offers from grant-maintained schools, which all had their own admissions procedures. Some of the schools were also partially selective.
At present, the local education authority is backing parents' complaints to the adjudicator but a by-election has just handed power to the Conservative group. The council meets tomorrow and is likely to withdraw its objection to partial selection.