Three out of four highest-scoring schools are selecting pupils, reports Estelle Maxwell. Top-scoring comprehensives who pride themselves on a non-selective policy are still choosing pupils who are likely to contribute to their overall performance.
Despite insisting they are obliged to take in children of all abilities, three out of four of the highest achieving local authority secondaries employ some form of selection.
It is being claimed that these policies amount to covert selection - and this has cast fresh doubt upon the accuracy of the information provided by the tables.
All the schools ranked from first to fourth position for the number of pupils gaining five or more grades A to C at GCSE are massively over-subscribed and have a long established reputation for high academic attainment.
This year's tables show The Liverpool Blue Coat School moved from second to first place. It is followed by three grant-maintained schools: Coopers' Company and Coborn, Havering; Old Swinford Hospital, Dudley; and Hertfordshire and Essex High, Hertfordshire.
Though none of the schools holds entrance exams, most interview pupils to gain an understanding of their suitability in terms of motivation, interests, or ability in music, drama, or sport.
The Liverpool Blue Coat School, the country's top-performing state secondary, is now applying to become selective for its 1996 intake. It was reprimanded by the Department for Education and Employment almost a year ago because of its admissions procedures - yet it appears the voluntary-aided school is not alone in applying such techniques.
This year 98 per cent of its pupils gained five grades A to C at GCSE - an increase of 1 per cent. Headteacher John Speller said: "We are massively over-subscribed and have to select students on some criteria. My feeling is that students who are interested in sport, drama or music and have lots of extra-curricular activities are the type who can motivate themselves and cope with stringent academic demands."
Dr Davina Lloyd, head of Coopers' Company and Coborn school which has a largely middle-class catchment, said for September 1996 it received 796 applications for 180 places.
Its present Year 11 cohort were admitted under local authority interview procedures. Since going GM two years ago the school has interviewed pupils who first complete a questionnaire about themselves and their interest in sport, music or drama.
She said its intake was likely to be skewed because of its geographical situation but stressed: "We do not select on academic grounds. We are selecting interesting children who will benefit from the liberal education we offer. "
Old Swinford Hospital, one of a handful of state boarding schools, was the focus of "self selection" by parents and pupils, according to headteacher Chris Potter.
"We have to see parents and boys at an interview because a series of different factors come into play in a boarding school - they have to be convinced boarding is something they can cope with," he said.
"You are not going to come to a school like this unless you are interested in developing your ability in music, drama and sport. Success outside the classroom is a spin-off inside it. We want an all-rounder who is highly motivated, who has reasons to board and who wants to do so."
Of the admissions to Hertfordshire and Essex High school for girls in Bishop's Stortford, 10 per cent are now allocated to Year 11 pupils with ability in music, sport and drama.
But headteacher Pauline Ewin said that for the past 15 years the school had admitted children from the whole ability range and this year's results were achieved by pupils admitted under local authority criteria.
She said: "I would put our success partly down to gender and to our location. I also give a lot of credit to my staff because compared to similar schools in similar locations with a similar intake we have done very well - so some of it must be down to the school itself."