Church schools, such as the London Oratory where Tony Blair sent his eldest sons, will be banned from interviewing prospective pupils - but not until 2005.
The move will anger some schools, which see interviews as a key way of maintaining their religious ethos, but it is supported by both Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders. They fear that accusations that the one in 10 church schools who interview applicants discriminate against working-class pupils damage the image of all their schools.
Specialist schools that choose to select up to 10 per cent of pupils on the basis of aptitude will still be permitted to hold "auditions". Boarding schools will also be allowed to continue to interview pupils.
John Johnson, headteacher of the Campion Roman Catholic school in Havering, east London, conducts 12-minute "meetings" with parents as part of the application process, although the policy is under review. He believes that a ban on interviews could penalise pupils whose parents leave vital information off their application form.
"I am in favour of leaving schools to decide rather than introduce a blanket ban. That could penalise pupils whose parents are not good at filling in forms."
But Maria Williams head of Maria Fidelis Catholic school in Camden, London, welcomed the decision. "We do not feel we need to interview the family because we rely on the local priest to provide information. The worry with interviews is that people notice other issues such as family background even if they do not mean to.
"You do not have to be rich to be a good Catholic do you?"
The change is contained in a new School Admissions Code of Practice. Subject to Parliamentary approval, the code comes into force on January 1 next year. It will affect intakes to primary and secondary schools from September 2004.
Critics who have complained that some church schools use interviews to select pupils by background or ability rather than religion welcomed the change but were angered by the delay. "It is inexplicable why it isn't being introduced immediately," said Martin Rogers of the local government education network. Under the code, oversubscribed schools will be expected to give priority to children in care when allocating their places.
Foundation and voluntary-aided schools will also be expected to agree schemes to co-ordinate admissions arrangements with their local education authority.
Where a local agreement cannot be reached, the Secretary of State will have the power to impose one.