Local education authorities and other supporters of the state system have attacked the Government's draft circular on admissions for being rushed, unnecessary, and likely to favour some schools and parents at the expense of the majority. Encouraging "diversity" will not help parental choice, they say.
The draft circular, hurried out in early January with only seven weeks for consultation, followed the Prime Minister's speech to grant-maintained schools in Birmingham last September in which he promised a review of admission arrangements.
John Major expressed sympathy for the irritation GM schools felt at having to refer every change in their admission arrangements, however minor, to the Department for Education and Employment. He said self-governing schools should be able to decide themselves how to deal with over-subscription and maintaining the ethos of their school.
Only two years ago the Department said schools could select up to 10 per cent of their pupils for aptitude in areas like sport, drama and music without this counting as "a significant change of character" which needed to be approved by the Education Secretary. In the latest circular, the figure has risen to 15 per cent and selection can also be based on general ability.
The review and resulting draft circular are widely assumed to have been "bounced" on an unwilling Education Secretary.
In the 1993 circular, interviews to assess an applicant's suitability for a non-selective school - other than a Church school - were forbidden. The Government now proposes to drop this prohibition.
If implemented, the changes would not in fact make a great difference - or, as the Association of Metropolitan Authorities writes in its response: "There is somewhat less to this than meets the eye." While the 1,100 grant-maintained schools would have greater freedom, the 23,000 local authority schools would continue to have their admissions policies largely determined by their authority. Since nearly all LEAs are now Labour-controlled, there is unlikely to be a great rush to selection.
Circulars do not in any case have legal force. As the AMA writes in its response, "both the original formulation . . . and the current draft are interpretations of the law as yet untested by the courts".
However, the Association of County Councils says it believes 15 per cent certainly would be "significant" and describes the increase in the figure as "a back door way of attempting to change the law".
In perhaps the most outspoken response, the AMA concludes that the draft circular represents an attempt to reconcile the Prime Minister's speech with the current legal framework rather than an objective review of the system. It says the result will be to to encourage grant-maintained schools to manipulate their intake in favour of abler pupils by methods previously deemed inappropriate. The most contentious of these, it says, is the interview.
"While there is disagreement between educationists over the merits or otherwise of a coherent selective system or a fully comprehensive approach, there is a much wider dislike of 'social selection'," the association says.
"The AMA believes it is unacceptable for a nominally comprehensive system to allow some better placed schools to manipulate their intake according to subjective and unchallengeable criteria, while condemning many pupils to education in the 'sink schools'."