Giving all secondaries control over admissions provokes warnings of chaos and injustice. Jon Slater reports
Foundation schools will face tough new rules on admissions unless they are willing to take their share of difficult pupils.
Ministers will act to prevent popular schools dumping problem pupils on their less successful neighbours, according to a senior government figure.
They will step in if the present admissions code of practice and voluntary arrangements between schools prove inadequate.
All secondary schools will be given the chance to gain foundation status and take control of their admissions as part of the Government's five-year plan.
Critics, including many within the Labour party, warn that allowing all 3,400 secondaries to control their own admission arrangements will lead to chaos. Each year, 70,000 parents appeal against the secondary-school place offered to their child.
Ministers believe that it would be wrong to restrict headteachers' freedom without giving them a chance to prove they can use their new freedoms responsibly. New "foundation partnerships" between schools will encourage all to accept a wide range of pupils voluntarily, they say.
Schools will also continue to follow the existing code of practice, enforced by the schools adjudicator, which prevents them selecting pupils by interview. But ministers will step in if the system is abused.
The warning of tougher admission rules was made as it became apparent that school choice will be one of the key election battlegrounds. The Conservatives would allow schools to set their own admissions criteria and select by ability.
Labour believes it can allow parents increased choice without creating sink schools which are left to deal with an unfair share of difficult pupils refused places by their successful neighbours. But that claim has been attacked by those in the party who believe increased diversity and independence for secondaries will undermine fairness.
At the Labour conference last week, Fiona Millar, the former aide of Cherie Blair and partner of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spokesman, called on the Government to drop the idea that each secondary school could control its own admissions.
She said: "Reforming a system which routinely allows some schools to keep out children they don't want to teach should be a source of pride in the third term and at the heart of the manifesto."
Teacher union leaders believe plans to create 200 new academies, state-funded independent schools, will create further problems. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that academies would be able to manipulate admissions.
"The pressure that will be on new schools like academies to deliver results means that they will devise open or covert mechanisms to encourage those pupils who perform well and discourage those who perform badly," he said.
Ministers did indicate that they would be making concessions after a critical report on selection by MPs, published before the summer parliamentary recess. They called for a reduction in the number of admissions authorities and said that the present system penalises struggling schools.
Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, told a conference fringe meeting in Brighton that the Government would publish its response to the education select committee's report within the next few weeks.
He said: "A number of the points made by the committee have a great deal of weight."