Schools 'forced to select pupils'

The government is forcing some state schools to introduce entrance examinations if they wish to opt out of local-authority control. Teachers and educationalists fear the move is a covert attempt to bring back a grammar school system.

The Conservative-controlled Association of County Councils is to warn the House of Lords that schools are agreeing on new admission policies without the consent of parents and in contradiction of earlier promises.

Senior education officers have described the development as the 'thin end of the wedge' and believe it will lead to the wider use of 11-plus-style exams.

Last Saturday, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that three grant- maintained schools were to introduce testing. The Queen Elizabeth School in Penrith, Cumbria, will select all pupils on an entrance exam; Dame Alice Owen's School and the Queens' School, both in Hertfordshire, will chose up to half their new pupils by tests. Mr Patten described it as a 'good day for choice and diversity'.

However, neither of the Hertfordshire schools wanted to introduce testing, and it was only after objections by the Department for Education that they were included. When parents voted to opt out, it was clearly on the basis that there would be no 'change in character' at the schools, both comprehensives. But when the governors applied to the DFE for grant-maintained status - direct funding from central Government - they were told their admissions policy must be more 'objective'. The DFE agreed to allow grant-maintained status only after the schools promised to include some entrance exams.

David Bolton, head of Dame Alice Owen's School, which has 1,170 11- to 18-year-olds, said: 'The governors were very surprised that the DFE should suddenly introduce a major condition. This will have profound implications for schools in England and Wales. I hope parents will be understanding about the changes. They are not ideal, but are the best alternative available.'

Mr Bolton added that he knew of schools in Hertfordshire and London that were being asked to make similar changes by the DFE before being granted new status.

Mary Marsh, headteacher at the Queens' School, which has 1,200 11- to 18-year-olds, said: 'I was extremely surprised. The DFE insisted there should be more objectivity in our selection process.'

Mr Bolton and Mrs Marsh both insist, however, that their schools will not change their character because they will ensure that they still admit pupils with a wide range of abilities.

But Martin Rogers, of Local Schools Information, an independent body, said it was 'scandalous' that schools had changed their admissions policy without consultation with parents.

The DFE move is in line with its draft circular on admissions policy, which calls for greater objectivity when schools are over- subscribed. Schools are already allowed to select up to 10 per cent of pupils from among those who are particularly talented in art, music or sport. There are 479 grant-maintained schools and a further 213 have voted to opt out.

A DFE spokesman said that only 'significant changes', which altered the school's character, needed the approval of the minister.

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