Ever since the early days of Tony Blair's premiership, this government has tied itself in knots over selection. It started with the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, which allowed specialist schools to select 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude, provided it was a specific and not a general one.
It became the responsibility of the newly-formed Office of the Schools Adjudicator to make sense of this new law. The adjudicator concluded that schools would only be able to select pupils provided they set proper aptitude tests. Since that ruling, three years ago, many more than a hundred complaints about schools using dubious selection policies have been upheld. This has been enough to prevent any backdoor return to selection.
Anti-selection campaigners have been further encouraged by ministers'
recent decision to tighten the law further, restricting selection by aptitude to schools that specialise in modern languages, music, performing arts, visual arts or sport.
But that does not mean that this fudge over admissions is working. Nor is it fair. The problem with relying on aptitude tests is that no one can be sure they are accurate. Take the well-established music test, which scores pupils for pitch, rhythm, harmony and texture and ranks them accordingly.
How reliable is this system? Would a pupil ranked, say, 19th, on one day, score differently, fall to 20th place, and miss out on a school place if he or she re-took the same test on another day?
We do not know because there is no available research. Such a study is urgently needed, if these tests are to continue to be used to select pupils. Questions also need to be asked about language colleges selecting on the basis of aptitude, given the high degree of correlation between a talent for languages and general ability. The Government is ending this practice for specialist design and technology, and ICT, colleges. Why not languages too?
In an ideal world, the Government would disentangle itself by simply banning all forms of selection. Schools have no business making decisions which should properly be left to parents and pupils.