The Government is to encourage more selection and the revival of grammars by allowing schools to set their own admission policies.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, yesterday announced plans for a White Paper intended to set out a radical Conservative agenda for education in the run-up to the general election.
The White Paper is expected to examine the prospects for giving schools greater control over the pupils they take and reducing further the powers of local authorities.
Speaking at London University's Institute of Education, Mrs Shephard said ministers want to give all schools the benefits of being grant-maintained. The strategy is intended to demonstrate the Government's commitment to parental choice by encouraging a range of schools, including grammars. It also serves to establish clear blue water between the Conservatives and a Labour party that is opposed to selection.
The Government is now likely to abandon plans to allow schools to select up to 15 per cent of pupils and replace them with options that would allow schools to select a far higher proportion of pupils on the basis of academic ability.
Mrs Shephard said: "We think all schools should consider what sort of admissions policy will best match the needs of their local communities. .. We welcome any type of school - grammar, comprehensive, specialist or whatever - which is providing a good education for its pupils." She added: "Where a school wants to introduce a greater degree of selection, because it believes it can provide a better education for its pupils by doing so, we want it to have that choice."
As well as giving schools greater freedom to decide whether they want to offer a specialism or become selective, ministers are considering increasing the share of the education budget directly spent by schools.
Currently, local authorities have to delegate 85 per cent of schools spending to governing bodies. The options likely to be contained in the White Paper include forcing local authorities to increase the proportion to 90 per or more or taking from local authorities responsibilities for such services as special needs.
She told her audience that ministers had been examining whether there are functions that have to be reserved to local authorities. The Department for Education and Employment has also been looking at the variations between local authorities in how much they hold back from school budgets. Local authorities are entitled to "top slice" education budgets to take account of services such as school transport before setting the amount they spend on schools. She said:"Our objective is clear. To give schools as much power as possible to take their decisions about their budgets in the interests of their pupils."
Although ministers are talking in terms of a White Paper, there is unlikely to be any major legislation before the election, partly because of time constraints and partly because of the Government's slim majority. Much of what was due to be announced can be achieved without a Bill. However, the Government would have to amend legislation to allow grant-maintained comprehensives to become grammar schools without having to seek permission from ministers.
Currently, to make radical changes to their admissions policy, LEAs have to submit proposals to the DFEE and carry out a public consultation.