Campaigners in Barnet, Kent, Ripon, Sutton and Trafford are taking the first formal steps towards ending selection in nearly 50 of the country's remaining 160 grammars. They aim to use new legislation to trigger petitions for ballots on the future of the 11-plus in their areas.
Conservatives accused the Government of educational vandalism and said the ballots were open to fraud. Ministers argue that their aim is not to abolish selection for secondary schools but to give parents the choice about its future.
Parents' groups in the five areas are writing to Electoral Reform Ballot Services to discover how many signatures they will need to secure a ballot on the fate of the 11-plus in their area and which parents will be eligible to sign. Parents in Medway, Kent, meet shortly to decide whether to follow suit but are likely to postpone their challenge until next year.
Under new government rules, parents can petition for a ballot on the future of selection. If 20 per cent of eligible parents sign the petition, local parents will be balloted on whether they want to keep their grammar schools. In predominantly selective areas such as Kent all parents will have a vote. In those where only a few selective schools remain, only parents of pupils at feeder schools who regularly send pupils to grammar schools will be enfranchised.
Campaigners admit they face a difficult challenge but they believe that parents' indignation about the stress caused by selection will help them. In Ripon, North Yorkshire, which has one grammar school and one secondary modern, Debbie Atkins said: "I am very optimistic. We are not left-wing political activists. We are all parents who have had experience of the selection process. We are constantly in touch with parents who are distraught and who cannot sleep at night because they are going through it."
Anne Logan, treasurer of Kent's Stop the Eleven Plus Campaign, which has around 500 active parent members, said: "A lot of parents are concerned about the effect selection has on the self-esteem of the majority of children who do not pass the exam for grammar schools."
Parents in Barnet, north London, which has three grammar schools, will start collecting signatures today, even before they are officially told which parents are eligible.
Those in neighbouring Haringey, Enfield and Hertfordshire which send large numbers of pupils to the Barnet schools are also joining the campaign.
Pro-grammar school groups have already been formed to oppose the campaign. Eric Hammond, chairman of the Save Kent Schools group, said the ending of selection in the county could cost as much as pounds 150m. He said: "If the petition and ballot is successful, people with means will put their children into independent schools instead of grammar schools. It would be choice by the purse rather than by ability."
John Bercow, a Conservative education spokesman, said:"These schools are beacons of excellence in our education system ... We must fight to protect these prized institutions against egalitarian hooliganism."
Ministers have made it clear that they are not expecting large numbers of ballots because of the tight procedures they have established.