High Court says opt-out school can select all pupils: Patten acted lawfully in granting application to choose intake at 11 on academic ability. Julia Hagedorn reports

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The Independent Online
A HIGH COURT ruling yesterday makes it easier for schools to ignore local opposition and become selective in taking pupils.

The judge ruled that John Patten, the Education Secretary, had acted lawfully when he gave approval to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, in Penrith, Cumbria, to select all its pupils by academic ability at 11.

The school opted out of local authority control in January 1992. In September it published statutory notices for change of status to accept pupils from the age of 11, after a series of consultation meetings. In March this year, Mr Patten approved the change and Queen Elizabeth was set to become the first grant-maintained comprehensive to be approved as a grammar school. It went comprehensive in 1969.

However, Cumbria's education committee decided to apply for a judicial review on the grounds that the Secretary of State had failed to take account of public opinion in Penrith and there had been no public consultation on the selection changes.

In evidence to the court, Mr Patten expressed his regret if the Department for Education had conveyed a misleading impression in a press notice. And last night he welcomed the decision and said he was pleased that the uncertainty surrounding the future of secondary education in the town had been resolved. He hoped that the schools and community could 'now put this controversial period behind them'.

The controversy is likely to live on, and not only in Penrith. Queen Elizabeth formerly took pupils from the ages of 13-18. It is just down the road from Ullswater High School whose brightest pupils it took at 13. It will now cream them off at 11.

The head, Don Fay, has already selected 90 pupils for this September's intake. He had only 110 to choose from because of the uncertainty hanging over the school's status. He chose the children through interviews with their parents, aptitude tests, and reports from their primary schools.

Asked about the reaction from parents, he said: 'Some are not too happy. But we are going ahead and it won't affect us particularly. We are thrilled with the High Court ruling.' He added that 'the futile gesture by the local authority to delay things has been thrown in its face'.

Cumbria County Council declined to comment. The council will have to pay the school governors' costs, but not the Secretary of State's.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers said that the judgment was the worst of both worlds. 'It facilitates the reintroduction of selection on variable criteria . . . at least the 11-plus had some degree of objectivity about it.'

David Hart, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the decision would reduce the opportunities available to parents in Penrith. Virtually all the heads of the local primaries were opposed, he said. 'It proves the point that it is easier to get selective status for a school if it goes grant-maintained first.'

Grant-maintained schools can already offer up to 10 per cent of their places by selecting children in subjects such as technology, art or music. Under the original legislation, they were not allowed to change their character or status for five years after opting out. This restriction was removed by Mr Patten last year.

Opponents of grammar schools saw this as reverting to an all-embracing selective system, but Mr Patten has said that the Government simply wishes to increase parents' choice.

Three secondary schools have been allowed to select some pupils and around six opted-out schools are thought to be drawing up plans to apply for full or partial selection at 11.