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Tories see selection as a winner

Ministers are considering putting selection at the heart of their election campaign with a commitment that all schools be allowed to admit up to a quarter of their pupils on the basis of academic ability.

Conservative party strategists calculate that promises of greater freedom over admissions would boost the number of grant-maintained schools because the mainly Labour-controlled local authorities are unlikely to countenance selection on such a scale.

The emphasis on grammar schools and greater selection comes from Number 10, reflecting a belief that the promise of a grammar-school revival is a vote-winner which will wrong-foot Labour in the wake of the Harriet Harman row. Her decision to send her son to a grant-maintained grammar school has forced Labour on to the defensive over its opposition to selection.

John Major, in his speech this week to the Social Market Foundation, made clear his regret at the abolition of grammars. He said selective schools represented an important part of the "rich spectrum" which had become one of the Government's great legacies.

However, only two of the country's 1,100 grant-maintained schools - Queen Elizabeth in Penrith and Queen Elizabeth Boys in the London borough of Barnet - have applied to become fully selective, and only a handful have increased the proportion they select by more than 10 per cent.

The Government is consulting on plans to allow schools to select up to 15 per cent of intake on the basis of academic ability without having to apply for permission from the Department for Education and Employment. Ministers are considering whether that proportion could be increased to 20 or 25 per cent.

Within the DFEE there is little enthusiasm for any revival of grammar schools, but giving schools greater freedom to select is seen as one way of fulfilling the Prime Minister's ambition of increasing the number of GM schools.

Mr Major told the SMF: "We have created a spectrum . . . that reflects the fact that every child is different . . . we are currently considering how to increase that rich variety with more selective schools." Changes in admission procedures could not be put into place before autumn 1997.

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