Primary schools could select up to half their pupils without consulting the Secretary of State under proposals contained in the latest education White Paper.
There are fears that publication of the first league tables for primary schools next February could heighten competition for parents to get their five-year-olds into high-scoring schools, thus increasing the pressure to select.
For the first time, grant-maintained schools could select up to half of their pupils on academic ability or other aptitude, while local authority schools could choose 20 per cent of pupils without clearance from the Secretary of State if the White Paper becomes law in the next Parliamentary session.
And a newly-published circular means from this autumn local authority schools will be able to select 15 per cent of pupils on general ability if they wish.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said the legislation allowing for selection had never differentiated between primary and secondary schools. "In theory primary schools could select pupils: in practice they don't," she said. There was no intention to encourage primary schools to select pupils in either the circular or the White Paper, she added.
But Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for State Education, said: "The Government should spell it out if it doesn't apply to primary schools since the circular now allows schools to select on general ability." It was a particularly worrying scenario when considered with the KS2 tests and league tables, she said.
Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, said: "I would think it could happen in time where there was strong pressure on a school."
Bob Wright, head of Bourn Abbey school in Lincolnshire, the first primary to go grant-maintained, said primary schools were committed to their local community. He added: "Anyway, how would you select five or seven-year-olds? On whether they could dress themselves or knew their 12-times table?"