New Government advice being drafted on the way schools admit pupils is likely to pave the way for greater social selection by popular comprehensives.
The consultation paper on admission procedures likely to be published next week is expected to suggest dropping the current ban on comprehensives selecting pupils on the basis of interviews.
Under existing rules, comprehensives are advised to use objective criteria as the basis for selecting pupils - in the main, schools take the pupils who live nearest.
When the circular was updated in 1993, an express warning was added against the use of interviews, because they are open to the criticism that judgments on suitability might be based on social, ethnic or academic considerations. Church schools are advised to use interviews only to establish the religious background of applicants.
However, schools have ignored the advice, most flagrantly in the case of the London Oratory, the grant-maintained comprehensive chosen by Labour leader Tony Blair and his wife for their eldest son. The school selects on the basis of interviews designed to assess whether the aims, attitudes and values of parents are in harmony with those of the school.
There are fears that the increased competition engendered by exam league tables could encourage schools to use interviews to screen out children unlikely to produce good results or likely to be disruptive.
The relaxation of the rules on interviews is likely to be at the behest of the Prime Minister. In September, John Major told a meeting of grant-maintained school heads and governors: "I know you are concerned about the way your admission arrangements that you had operated successfully in the local authority sector were called into question.
"I also understand your irritation as self-governing schools at having to apply to the Department for Education and Employment for any change, however minor, in your admission arrangements, and then sometimes being invited to make changes you didn't ask for."
The other options likely to be contained in the consultation paper include allowing schools to increase from 10 to 15 per cent the proportion of pupils that can be selected on the basis of academic ability.
Currently, GM schools have to apply to DFEE for permission to change their selection procedures. The paper is expected to suggest GM schools will no longer need permission to select up to 15 per cent of their intake.
The Labour party this week accused the Government of abandoning parental choice in a last desperate lurch to the Right on education.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "Parents will no longer choose their schools. Instead, schools will pick the parents and pupils. "
Roy Hattersley, Labour's former deputy leader, who earlier this year expressed fears that his party's plans on GM schools could lead to social selection, said he was confident a Labour government would not permit schools to admit pupils on the basis of interviews.
"David Blunkett very clearly ruled out any form of social selection in his speech to Labour's conference," he said.
The proposals, he added, were clearly a defeat for Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, who had not wanted the changes.