SPECIALIST schools face having their admissions policies overturned if they flout the law on selecting pupils, the man in charge of school enrolment for England said today.
A controversial rule, allowing specialist secondaries to select up to 10 per cent of their intake, is to be tightened following a landmark judgment by Philip Hunter, the chief schools adjudicator.
The schools are allowed to select pupils by "aptitude", or potential, in a particular subject but many are accused of instead selecting by ability, or how good a pupil is already.
Mr Hunter told The TES: "Specialist schools should not get into selection unless they are prepared to use proper aptitude tests."
Around 60 of the 1,209 specialist schools select some pupils, according to Government figures. They could now face challenges from neighbouring schools unless they introduce strict aptitude tests.
His comments come after 10 schools in Hertfordshire were ordered to change their admissions policies. Complaints that they were selecting by ability rather than aptitude were upheld by Mr Hunter.
The move comes after years of argument about selection in specialist schools, which will account for 45 per cent of secondary pupils in England by September, when the number rises to 1,454. Opponents, including many Labour MPs, argue aptitude and ability are the same thing and that schools can use the 10 per cent rule, set out in the 1998 Education Act, to introduce academic selection by the back-door.
The Hertfordshire schools have been taking advantage of another clause in the 1998 Act. This allows schools that control their own admissions to select up to 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude in subjects where they have expertise, even if they do not technically specialise in this subject. This has allowed them to select in more than one subject: for example several have been selecting in music, art and sport at the same time.
Mr Hunter, who based his decision on evidence from two academic experts and one from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, decided the 10 schools had been selecting by ability in these areas. Schools should, where possible, use formal aptitude tests, he said. Where these are unavailable, schools should employ independent, qualified coaches to assess children against published criteria.
Four other Hertfordshire schools had complaints against their selection methods dismissed.
Mr Hunter, who explains his reasoning in an article this week's TES, said that the schools should not be blamed for falling foul of the law.The law tried to make a sharp distinction between "aptitude" and "ability" but, in layman's English, they often amounted to the same thing. "One of the difficulties is the law uses these two words as if they were separate things and actually they are not," he said.
In a second set of decisions, Mr Hunter ordered five of the Hertfordshire schools to cut the number of pupils they select by ability. The law allows schools that have selected by ability since before 1997 to continue to do so.
Ministers have repeatedly stressed that only 6 per cent of specialist schools now use selection.
But this month, Labour MPs and anti-selection campaigners will call for a pledge to end selection in the party's next manifesto. David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North, has pledged to introduce a Bill in the autumn banning selection in specialist schools. Former education minister Stephen Byers was among his supporters when a similar Bill was debated in March.