LEADING ARTICLE:Social selection is bad for schools

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Selection in schools appears to be on the way back. This would be the most revolutionary change in the state education system for decades. The Government is considering allowing state schools more control over their own admissions procedures. The most likely option is enabling schools to select pupils on the basis of interviews with the children and their parents.

Advocates of such a change argue that schools should be allowed to choose pupils from supportive families that will instil discipline and academic motivation into their children and reflect the values of the school.

But do we really want to go down this road? Imagine the family turning up for their classroom grilling. Articulate, well-educated professional parents will find it easy to convey the impression of a motivated family which values academic standards - and their charming children will be quickly accepted. But the child whose parents have no qualifications, little respect for academic achievement, and a deep suspicion of schools and teachers is likely to be at a considerable disadvantage, no matter how bright he or she is.

There is a stronger case for interviewing prospective pupils: at least, unlike their parents, they will actually attend the school. But the downside cannot be ignored. The children who are already confident and socially at ease will have a great advantage over the shy, the retiring, the awkward or the socially inhibited child, no matter what their academic potential.

There is one possible advantage in allowing schools to determine their admissions procedures. Each school could build up its own distinctive virtues, whether it be academic achievement, religious commitment or excellence in music or art. But the benefits that might accrue from such a wide range of choices for parents are outweighed by the dangers inherent in the kind of social selection that is being canvassed.

Had the Government suggested selection on the basis of ability, it might have a stronger case. At least the 11-plus purported to offer an objective way to discriminate between pupils by presenting everyone with the same independent test. And it was a considerably more meritocratic way of determining access to the best schools than the current system, where your chance of a good education depends on the area you live in or your parents' ability to pay school fees.

The problem with the 11-plus, lest we forget, is that it produced a form of academic apartheid. At the age of 11, all too many pupils were branded for life. Late developers suffered from being stuck in the wrong school. And the less able received low-quality education.

The current system of determining who goes to which school is not ideal. But the Government's proposals are not going to improve the situation. Most parents' biggest concern is how to get their child into an over-subscribed popular school and avoid the sink school down the road. Mr Major would do better to focus on expanding good schools and improving bad ones rather than encouraging social selection.