DFE acts on 'covert selection'

16th December 1994 at 00:00
Top-scoring comprehensive told to stop choosing pupils on basis of Oratory-style interviews.

The country's top-performing comprehensive in this year's national exam league tables has been told by the Department for Education that it should either stop choosing pupils on the basis of interviews or formally apply to become selective.

The DFE appears to have approached Blue Coat boys' school in Liverpool in the wake of complaints that its ranking in the league tables is unfair to other comprehensives because its admission procedures amount to covert selection.

Like the London Oratory, the Catholic grant-maintained school in south-west London favoured by Labour leader Tony Blair and his wife for their eldest son, the Blue Coat takes children that live a long way from the school. Both schools interview parents and boys, and ask for primary records.

The DFE has taken no action against the London Oratory, but letters to Blue Coat note the school uses interviews to assess a pupil's suitability "in terms of his motivation, his interests and his potential to make an effective contribution to the school's life as a whole, and in particular to its cultural and sporting activities". The official warns that in no circumstances should interviews be used to assess a child's ability or aptitude in any respect.

The school's head, John Speller, said governors had decided on the advice of the DFE it would be wise to change admission arrangements for 1996 intake. Admissions for next September are already being considered.

This year 97 per cent of Blue Coat's fifth-formers achieved five or more higher grade GCSEs, making it the joint top scoring comprehensive. Criticism of league tables centres on the fact that they do not take account of a school's intake or whether some schools are truly comprehensive.

Government advice to popular comprehensives is that interviews and reports from primary heads should not be used as part of admission procedures. In addition, it suggests that schools should use an objective criterion, such as distance, when choosing between pupils who have an equal claim.

The Blue Coat, a voluntary-aided school founded by a hospital trust, has now run into opposition from Liverpool education authority to its decision to apply to become selective. The LEA does not want a grammar school in the city.

The school has informed the local authority that it wants to set an exam, and places will be allocated on the basis of results. Because Blue Coat is voluntary-aided, the governors are responsible for admission arrangements, but they are required to consult the local authority on any proposed changes. The governing body is due to meet on Monday when it will consider a recommendation that the school should introduce selection on the basis of exam results. Liverpool is concerned that as a selective school Blue Coat would draw in more applicants from outside the city. The council wants the school to draw up an admission policy appropriate to a comprehensive.

The school has dropped an earlier proposal that priority would be given to the sons of permanent employees and voting members of the governing body.

The publication of league tables is bound to result in closer scrutiny of the basis on which secondary schools choose their pupils. A spokeswoman for the DFE said complaints about admission policies were fairly rare.

* The Association of Metropolitan Authorities is predicting that as many as 50,000 children in its 68 authorities may be caught up in disputes over admissions next year. In 19923 there were 41,927 appeals against admission decisions in AMA areas, an increase of 11 per cent over the previous year.

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