Selection of pupils by ability to end

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The Independent Online
SCHOOLS SHOULD stop selecting some of their pupils by academic ability, according to new Government guidelines. The interim guidelines, published yesterday, also propose sorting out some of the problems parents face getting their children into the school of their choice, by setting up a "clearing house" with a single application form and timetable.

In his foreword, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, gives the clearest signal so far that he expects partial selection, allowed by the previous government, to end. "Partial selection based on academic ability is not in the best interests of parents and children."

He points out that new independent adjudicators will be able to abolish it if complaints are made to them either by local authorities or parents.

Grammar schools will continue, unless parents vote to abolish them.

Under the last government all schools were allowed to select up to 15 per cent of pupils and opted-out schools could select more with the permission of the Secretary of State. The School Standards and Framework Bill, before Parliament, allows partial selection to continue but gives the adjudicators power to end it.

The guidelines aim to end the "admissions gridlock" over school places, attacked by the Audit Commission last year, with one in five parents failing to get their first choice of school. Problems have arisen because of the last government's policy of letting opted-out schools run their own admissions.

Parents in places such as Bromley, Hertfordshire and Wandsworth, in London, may have to apply to seven or eight schools and still not find a place for their child. The system enables some parents to hold on to several offers of school places while others face months of uncertainty because they have not been offered one.

In Watford, Hertfordshire, in March this year 1,000 children, a third of the total, were without a school place because the rest were holding on to several offers from grant-maintained schools, which all hadtheir own admissions timetables. Opted-out schools are blocking the county council's efforts to set up a clearing house system, and Stephen Byers, the education minister, told the House of Commons last month that he was minded to impose a solution.Mr Blunkett announced yesterday that he was imposing a co-ordinated admissions scheme on the county.

Under the new guidelines, all schools in an area should now work with the local authority to produce common timetables and a single application form by September 2000. Ideally, the arrangements should start this autumn.

Admissions criteria should be clear, fair and objective, under the proposed changes. Interviews will be outlawed except for church schools which want to determine a child's religious affiliation. All schools and the local authority will have to discuss their admissions policies in local forums and the independent adjudicators will settle disputes.

Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, the parents' pressure group, said she welcomed the general thrust of the guidelines. "We shall have to see what happens on the ground," she said.