Politicians watch closely as Bromley secondaries plan admission tests. Geraldine Hackett reports.
The Bromley experiment is likely to be seized on nationally by both Conservative and Labour politicians in the argument over selection.
Comprehensives in this prosperous south-east London borough are all about to introduce partial selection using 11-plus style test papers and tensions are running high.
There are heads like Robert Dilley at Coopers School, a 1,300-pupil mixed school in the north of the borough, who does not hide his irritation at events. "One school, by changing its character, has changed the character of other schools," he says.
The school he has in mind is Hayes, where the governors have applied to Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, for permission to select by academic ability 25 per cent of pupils from next September.
The new admission arrangements will apply to those children taking up places next September. There has as yet been no reply from the Department for Education and Employment, but the other 14 comprehensives have responded by announcing they intend to select 15 per cent of their intakes, the new maximum schools can introduce without having to apply for permission.
The Conservatives who run Bromley council have even been persuaded, against the advice of their officers, to allow the last remaining local authority comprehensive to join the 15 percenters. The other secondaries are grant-maintained and, as such, can take advantage of the latest admissions guidance allowing up to 15 per cent selection without going through any formal procedures or consultation.
There is great competition for places in Bromley. Around one in five of the secondary school pupils come from outside Bromley - the most famous out-of-borough parent being Harriet Harman, who sends her son to one of the two grammar schools, St Olave's.
At Hayes, the head, John Catmull, admits that parents living near the school are anxious about the governors' plan to introduce 25 per cent selection. Families with the requisite income will move into the village of Hayes and its surrounding area with the intention of sending their children there. "The majority of parents (living nearby) are interested in having the places in this school available for their children. Parents close to Hayes are concerned that there are places available. There is a certain amount of anxiety," he says.
However, the governors took the view that by introducing partial selection they would be adding to the choice available to parents, particularly in Bromley, where there are only two single-sex grammar schools.
Mr Catmull has had to take flak from the rest of the heads, who say their motive in moving to 15 per cent selection is a direct response to the decision taken at Hayes. It is the only way, they say, of ensuring any equitable distribution of more able children is retained.
There are those who point out that Hayes is already a well-favoured school. It has a predominantly middle-class intake, substantial funds and exam results that are above the Bromley average.
In reply, Mr Catmull says the school has chosen to follow the policy set by the elected government to provide greater choice and diversity. "I am on the receiving end for implementing what happens to be government policy," he says. Most of the other comprehensives had been selecting up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of particular abilities such as music, drama or sport. In any case, he says, he does not expect the intake to change very much if the school gets the go-ahead to introduce partial selection. He already has 650 applicants for 180 places.
"There remains a borough mentality, but the Greenwich judgement (the High Court ruling that schools should take eligible pupils that live nearest, regardless of local authority boundaries) means the education scene has changed," he says.
According to Mr Dilley at Coopers, who chairs the secondary heads group, a co-ordinated approach from the other schools will minimise the problems for parents facing a choice of 15 partially selective schools all setting their own tests. "We have agreed that 13 of the schools will have the same test date to save children being dragged around from test to test," he says. "We are going to work on this together."
Hayes is not included in the group. "We have embarked on the 15 per cent to maintain the status quo," he says. The decision made by Hayes has forced a response. "Bromley schools have worked together well and were demonstrating that mixed-ability schools work," he says.
Exam results at Coopers are not as high as Hayes, but says Mr Dilley, he has a less favoured intake.
The irony of the whole episode is that diversity and choice will reduce in the borough. The comprehensives have dropped 10 per cent selection on the basis of a range of aptitudes for two different degrees of partial academic selection.
And Mrs Shephard could still turn down the proposal from Hayes. At least one of its feeder primaries, also called Hayes, has put in an objection, as has the Conservative-controlled council.
The local authority is worried that any increase in selection in the schools will put further pressure on places. In the last admission round the final pupil was found a school place on the last day of the summer term - months after most parents are informed about their child's new school.
Because all but one of the secondaries are grant-maintained, the Funding Agency for Schools is responsible for ensuring adequate provision.
Once the arrangements for filling next year's places get underway in November and December, the reaction of parents will be closely watched. Labour has most to gain if the process turns out to be chaotic, with parents claiming some schools are setting harder tests than others.
If parents should find that a school selecting 15 per cent reduced their choices, Labour can crow that the situation is due to get worse. Legislation planned for the autumn will allow grant maintained schools to select up to half their pupils without having to go through any formal procedure or consulting parents.
The Conservatives will be able to judge whether in the crucial months before the election, the middle-class parents of Bromley are grateful for measures that allow schools to be more selective or whether they would have preferred their comprehensives to have remained comprehensive. ends