Proposals to allow schools to admit up to 15 per cent of pupils on the basis of suitability or aptitude will apply for the first time to children being offered places for September 1997, the Department for Education and Employment says.
Most local authorities and grant-maintained schools are already allocating places for September this year, and any changes would come too late to affect admissions this autumn. The consultation on the Government's plans which were announced this week is not due to end until February 22.
However, any change of government after an election in the spring of 1997 could pose problems for a Labour administration. Schools may have offered places on the basis of interviews, a practice Labour has said will be outlawed.
Measures outlined in the consultation paper increase from 10 per cent to 15 per cent the proportion of pupils that schools can select without the permission of Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary. The outline also changes Government guidance saying pupils should not be selected by interview.
Mrs Shephard, in announcing the proposed changes, also appeared to suggest that participation in home-school contracts might be used as a means to choose between pupils.
She said: "Interviews with parents and children already play an important role in the admission procedures of many denominational and selective schools. It is right that all schools should be able to decide for themselves whether this is a useful mechanism and whether other arrangements, such as home-school contracts, can assist children's education."
Her remarks were made in the wake of Sunday's BBC interview with John Major in which the Prime Minister promised that Mrs Shephard would announce shortly details of a contract to ensure parents and schools work more closely.
Mrs Shephard subsequently insisted on Monday's BBC World at One that there are no plans "in the first instance" to make contracts binding or compulsory.
The schools most likely to take advantage of measures that provide greater freedom over admissions are grant-maintained schools.
Local Schools Information, the local authority-funded advisory body, knows of at least 22 grant-maintained schools that use some form of selection for up to 10 per cent of their intake.
Other schools ignore the present strictures on using interviews as the basis for selection. One grant-maintained school, The Coopers' Company and Coburn school in Havering, east London, interviews all pupils and sets a test in maths and English. The head, Dr Davinia Lloyd, said the interview was the important part of the process which allowed the school to select "interesting children who would benefit from the school's liberal education". It has had 1,300 applications for 180 places available in September.
Local Schools Information says the proposal to allow schools to select up to 15 per cent of their intake could be open to challenge in the courts. The advisory body maintains that the courts might interpret such changes as a significant change in the character of the school requiring direct ministerial approval.
* Labour accused Mr Major of copying Labour's ideas on home-school contracts. David Blunkett's office said Labour first advocated home-school contracts in 1988. The policy also featured in Labour's latest policy paper, Excellence for Everyone.