Council calls in officials to check on technology college's ability-testing policy. Clare Dean, Chris Bunting and Karen Bayne report.
ADMISSIONS arrangements at a grant-maintained school which has almost halved its number of pupils on free school meals in five years are to be investigated.
Barnet Council has complained to the Government about Mill Hill county school, which opted out six years ago and gained specialist status as a technology college in 1994.
Mill Hill wants to select 30 per cent of pupils each year using technological ability tests from September and to give 15 per cent of places to those with formal qualifications in music or dance. In 1993, 13 per cent of its pupils were eligible for free school meals - the widely used indicator of poverty. Last year that figure fell below 7 per cent.
The school is one of two in Barnet to have declared their intention to continue selecting some pupils according to aptitude or ability.
The other - St Mary's High in Hendon, which is also a GM school - intends to admit 25 pupils by academic test. Its free school meal intake has increased.
Alan Williams, Labour council leader, said: "Children's chances of a truly comprehensive education are reduced by schools like Mill Hill creaming off the most able and socially privileged youngsters.
"This council will not accept schools behaving as if they were islands, populated by specially chosen youngsters and ignoring the needs of the wider community."
But Alan Davison, the school's head, said: "What the LEA is trying to do is refuse choice by saying children can only go to their local school."
He said the school had 1,138 applicants for 210 places last year. It took a "balanced intake" and had 1.5 times the national average of pupils on the special needs register.
Only two out of the 141 specialist schools surveyed by The TES selected by aptitude, and Mill Hill was one of them. The other - Katharine Lady Berkeley's language college in Gloucestershire - has also seen its free school meal rate drop from 5.6 per cent in 1995, when it became a specialist school, to 3.1 in 1999.
Andrew Harris, the school's new headteacher, plans to drop selection from September 2000.
He said: "When you are in an area with a disparity of primary provision, some parents, just in order to get a place here, will move to primary schools that are going to help them get in. There will be other parents who are not going to do that and that is wrong."
Despite Government enthusiasm for specialist schools, information about them is scarce.
The Department for Education and Employment has no record of which specialist schools select pupils by aptitude and the Technology Colleges Trust, the body representing them, will not release the information it holds.
There was no consistent trend in free school meal rates among the 139 non-selective specialist schools identified in The TES survey.