The Campaign for State Education (Case) will use rules coming into force this month to hold ballots on whether selection should continue in Britain's 166 grammar schools. Case's first target is Queen Elizabeth Boys' School in Barnet, north London.
The school's academic results are high - last summer's A-level results ranked it the top state school in London - but Case questions whether its performance is due to the quality of teaching or whether selection merely allows it to cream off the brightest boys in north London. It believes selection restricts parental choice, forcing other schools to take a higher proportion of disruptive pupils and making competition for places ever fiercer.
But QE Boys' is popular: around 3,000 prospective parents visited the school's open evening last week and the school anticipates more than 1,000 applications for next autumn's intake.
QE Boys' was founded in 1573 for "the training of boys in manners and learning" under a Royal charter granted by Elizabeth I. It lies in 23 acres on the edge of the Hertfordshire green belt and facilities include an Eton Fives court. It went comprehensive in 1971 but, despite great local opposition, went grant-maintained in 1989 and wholly selective in 1995. It takes 160 boys a year on the basis of an entrance exam and 20 on musical ability. It will vigorously contest any moves to abolish selection.
Jenny Brown, a member of Case and the action group Barnet Parents, predicts that QE Boys' will be targeted once the regulations are passed in Parliament. "I would be very surprised if some parents didn't take up the ballot option," she said, adding that selection created the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies. "If you're told you're good you go for it. But if you fail or are rejected then your self-esteem goes the other way. Selection affects all pupils and parents in the borough."
The reasons why parents send their children to QE Boys' are complex. While many wholeheartedly endorse the ethos of selection, others say they are compromising their beliefs. "I believe in the comprehensive system. I think selection is wrong," said one mother whose child has been at the school for three years. "But we've looked at some of the local comprehensives and were appalled by what we saw with pupils openly disobeying teachers. There should be freedom of choice but there isn't."
One father, who had travelled from Wimbledon in south London, said: "I feel very sad about having to apply here. But we're dealing with my son's future. I can't hold him back in the hope that will help other schools improve in a few years. It will be too late for him by then."
Other parents fear a return to the comprehensive fold would dilute standards. "Academic results were what attracted us. It impressed us that they don't take children because of where they live," said Michele Benson, whose son started at the school in September. "I don't think everyone should go to local schools because standards would go down. Anybody could come in and I wouldn't like that."
Other parents in the borough made a deliberate choice not to send their children to QE Boys' and maintain that local comprehensives offer excellent schooling. Pat Hemmens, whose sons went to the nearby East Barnet comprehensive, said the peer pressure created by selection was intolerable. "I refused to put my second son in for QE Boys' tests. He asked me whether I thought he wasn't clever enough, even though he is. People whose children are not quite so able are missing out. They aren't having bright kids in the classrooms to bring the standards up." The threat to selection comes from the Education (Grammar Schools Ballots) Regulations 1998, under which a ballot can be held if 20 per cent of parents in feeder schools call for one.
Underhill junior school, a mile from QE Boys', 10 years ago sent up to 25 pupils to QE Boys' each year. Last September it sent just five. Its headmaster, Tony Godfrey, said: "One of the problems that parents face is that numbers leaving junior schools are very high and most schools have become oversubscribed."
A head at another feeder school said the intense competition caused "a lot of worry and sleepless nights" for parents. "They are putting themselves and their children through hell to get the school they want with little prospect of success."