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Admission policies and practices of selective and partially selective schools in England

John Coldron

John Williams

Jane Fearon

Kathy Stephenson

Angela Logie

Nicola Smith

Paper presented as part of a symposium on The Education Market in School: Admissions, Appeals and Quasi-Regulation at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Leeds, 13-15 September 2001



John Coldron
School of Education
Sheffield Hallam University
Sheffield S7 2BP




The purpose of this paper is to describe some significant aspects of the various modes of practice in areas in England where selection is practised. The evidence on which the paper is based was gained as part of the DfEE research project Parents' Experience of Choosing a Secondary School conducted, in partnership, by the Social Survey Division of the Office for National Statistics and Sheffield Hallam University School of Education(1). In the first stage Sheffield Hallam University studied the modes of practice for admissions for the year 1999-2000 in 141(2) Local Education Authorities in England. In the second stage the Office for National Statistics surveyed a nationally representative sample of parents choosing a secondary school. In the third stage Sheffield Hallam University analysed interviews with 32 parents, 5 LEA and 13 school Admission Authority staff in 5 case study areas.

Selective admission is found in a minority of LEA areas and a minority of schools in those areas. Only 9% of parents reported that a test formed part of the application process. There are at least three different purposes for such tests:

a) tests for general ability for admission to a grammar school to achieve an intake of a higher than average ability,

b) tests for general ability for admission to a banded school to achieve a more comprehensive intake,

c) tests for aptitude in a specialist subject.

Although only a minority, selective admissions present very different issues of management for both school admission officers and parents. Our understanding of the pressures, motivations and structural constraints at work in school admissions is advanced, we believe, by greater understanding of the way admissions are actually managed and the identification of issues concerning parents' experience of choosing a secondary school. In addition to providing what we hope is helpful description the findings have some relevance for the debate concerning the polarisation effect of marketisation on schools . In the light of the findings and discussion, we consider some possible consequences of the proposed expansion of the specialist schools programme.

The review of modes of practice was accomplished by a study of the composite prospectuses provided for parents by each of the 141 LEAs whose children were entering secondary school in September 2000 and by interview with the eighteen admission authority officers. As part of that review we looked at the admission policies and practices of areas deemed to be wholly selective and those of partially selective schools.

The management of preferences in wholly selective areas

The 'official' definition of a selective area, is one where over 25% of the pupils attend selective grammar schools. While maintained schools that have a wholly selective intake usually have grammar in their title, this is not invariable and some schools that use the title grammar are in fact comprehensive (or independent) schools. The names of the non-selective schools in a selective area also vary and they may be called secondary modern, high schools, all-ability schools or wide-ability schools. There are other areas such as Chelmsford and Colchester in Essex or Ripon and Skipton in North Yorkshire where all of the schools reasonably available to parents are organised as either selective grammars or secondary moderns. But because these are sub-areas within larger LEA districts the LEAs are not classified as wholly selective. All wholly selective areas use some version of a standardised test of general ability administered at 11+. In practice this was either one produced by an independent research organisation such as the NFER or one developed within the LEA itself. We deal in turn with two aspects of admissions in these areas -the first being the allowance of two first choices and the second being access by pupils to selective tests.

The advent of open enrolment highlighted a tension between the new inclusive principle that gave parents the theoretical right of attendance at any school of their choice and the older exclusive principle of selection. This, and the requirement to take account of parents' expressed preference creates a difficult issue for parents who wish to apply for a selective place if, at the time of stating their preference, they do not know if their child is eligible for a selective school place. If they express a first preference for a place at a selective school and their child does not reach the required standard (or too many do) it is possible that they would not get their preferred non-selective school because that school may already have reached its admission limit through the allocation of first preferences.

In the event of a child not gaining admission to a first choice selective school some wholly selective areas manage this difficulty for parents by allowing the next non-selective school preference to be deemed a first choice equal with those other parents who had expressed this as their actual first choice. Thus, parents who apply to selective schools are advantaged over other parents who for whatever reason did not apply.We found two variations of this default process. One is to maintain separate selective and non-selective school preference lists deciding which to use when the child's 11-plus result is known. The second way is to require parents to express preferences for selective and non-selective schools on a common form. If it turns out that the child is deemed ineligible for a place at a selective secondary school the highest preference non-selective school becomes, by default, the first preference. These systems have either been accepted by parents and schools, or at least have operated without any effective objection, over a number of years.

However the 1998 Education Act, reaffirmed both open enrolment and then existing systems of selection. The legislation also created the Office of the Schools Adjudicator thereby creating a process for challenging the admissions practices of schools as admission authorities and of LEAs. The Schools Adjudicator has ruled against the default procedures described above in two important determinations one concerning Wirral and the other Torbay.

There were two challenges to Wirral's admissions practices by two all-ability Catholic high schools. In summer 1999, the practice of elevating the second preference of pupils who failed to gain a grammar school place to a first preference was ruled unfair and discontinued. In July 2000, the practice of allowing pupils to take the 11+ test before expressing a preference for a secondary school was also ruled unfair. The adjudicator decided that tests for selecting to secondary schools should, under the Authority's admission arrangements, take place after rather than before all parents had expressed a preference for the school they wanted their child to attend In brief, the implications of the Torbay Determination are that tests for selection to secondary schools should follow and not precede the invitation to all parents to express a preference. An LEA should make it clear that each admission authority is required to deal first with each first preference that it receives and that a second preference for a school should therefore only be considered once the admission authority for that school has dealt with all the first preferences it has received. Any application to a school which is its own admission authority is to be regarded as nullifying a previously expressed preference for another school because of the rule that any preference counts as a preference and parents who have opted for a selective school place should not be advantaged over parents who have not opted for such a place by having 'two bites of the cherry' and having their selective school place preference disregarded when first preferences for a non selective secondary school place are considered.

Management of the problem in areas that are not wholly selective

A system adopted by a number of areas which are not wholly selective but have one or two selective schools in their area is to ask parents to express preferences for both selective and non-selective schools on a common form without first knowing if their child is eligible (i.e. has reached a high enough score in the test) for a place at a selective school. The tension mentioned above between the inclusive and exclusive principles is addressed directly by some LEAs. For example one LEA states clearly in its composite prospectus:

'If you enter your child for the 11plus you should bear in mind that a place at your local comprehensive school or community college cannot be reserved in the event that he or she does not gain a grammar school place.'

In this case advice is then given about the previous year's entry (what marks children had and what marks those who were given a place had). This has the effect of reassuring those parents whose children's test results are well above the pass mark but puts pressure on those with borderline marks. However, it allows most parents to make a reasonably informed choice. Of course the 'pass' mark may change each year as the number of students achieving those marks increases or decreases. The local authority acknowledges the fact that,

' ... A place is not guaranteed for a candidate who qualifies for a place under the 11plus selection arrangements...The guarantee of a grammar school place was necessary in the past when the only alternative was a secondary modern school, which did not cater for pupils of grammar school ability. Nowadays suitable alternatives are available at comprehensive schools and community colleges that cater for the whole academic ability range.'

This robust position will tend to facilitate comprehensive (all-ability) intakes at the non-selective schools in the area.

Difficulties for parents arising from the selective process

Each family will have a different range of choices and need to manage the admission process in different ways depending on whether they live in a selective area, a non-selective area, or an area with some selective or partially selective schools. There are some areas where selective secondary schools are available only in the voluntary-aided and foundation sectors. Parents who want their child to attend a popular selective school have to consider not only their child's ability but also other over-subscription criteria.

In other areas parents who are committed to a particular faith may need to make a choice between applying for a denominational place and applying for a selective non-church school place. To express a preference for the latter over the former may be interpreted as a lack of commitment to a church school education and may make it difficult to gain a place in such a school in the event of failing to secure a place at a selective non church school. Some may live on the borders between different types of authorities. Some parents may aspire to selective education for their child but find few selective schools within reasonable travelling distance. Others have to travel outside their area if they wish to escape the impact of selection. For yet other parents, the way in which selection operates by making ability rather than proximity a prior criterion may deny them a place at their local school.

Selection is usually incompatible with the comprehensive principle but also to the catchment and neighbourhood school principle. When selection is used to admit to three equal bands on the bass of attainment/ability it ensures a comprehensive intake probably more so than the proximity principle. Selection is also usually incompatible with the proximity principle of neighbourhood schools except where the school is oversubscribed in a densely populated area where proximity criteria are then often applied as part of the over subscription criteria. The recent adjudication concerning one school in London balanced the legitimacy of selection against the rights of parents in close proximity to the school.

Access to tests for places at a selective school

A significant aspect of the admission process to selective schools is how children are entered for the test. We found that there were different ways in which this happened. In some areas all children in the last year of primary school were entered for the test (with parents able to withdraw them by request). This method of entry is common for wholly selective areas. It provides universal access and raises no obvious equity issues beyond those generally associated with selective systems. In other areas children are entered on the primary school's recommendation (with parents able to include them by request). This involves, as a formal part of the process, a discussion with primary school staff about the child's secondary education and raises questions about the status of primary schools' judgements and recommendations. Because there is an element of judgement it is possible that some primary schools may inappropriately close off an opportunity for some children or recommend some for inclusion on the basis of non-academic criteria. Whether this is happening or not would need a separate study. But the possibility is there whereas in the universal entry systems it is not.

There is also the possibility that parents will differ in how they act on that recommendation. In addition we know from the extensive work on how parents choose a school that there are significant differences in the way that parents from different social groups respond to information and to the task of choosing. In other LEAs and for all wholly selective Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools parents must request that their child take the test as part of the application to the school. Skilled and semi-skilled choosers, who tend to be from more advantaged families, will do this more readily than those who are less engaged with the process of choice.

Schools that select part of their intake either by general ability or by aptitude

Partially selective schools are those that select a proportion of their pupils. Two permissible grounds for selection are identified in the School Standards and Framework Act (Chapter 2 sections 99 to 103). These are selection on the basis of greater general ability and selection on the basis of greater aptitude for one or more subjects. Arrangements for partial selection that were in place in the 1997-1998 school year are allowed to continue providing they have remained unchanged since that time. As before Specialist schools are allowed to select up to 10% of their intake for any one specialism. However, objections to such arrangements can be made and this is the most frequent type of objection that the Schools Adjudicator has to deal with. No further schools will be allowed to select on the basis of general ability and although in what follows we present some details of the present situation regarding these schools we concentrate more on the specialist schools which are the subject of present policy change.

In 1999 only 11% of all state secondary schools in England were designated specialist and the great majority did not select by aptitude. Selection by aptitude is in this sense a small part of admissions. The nationally representative survey conducted as part of this project showed that only one per cent of all parents reported their child having been tested for aptitude. However the government has announced a very considerable increase in the specialist school programme and so, even if the proportion that select by aptitude stayed the same, it will become more significant in the coming years. As Stephen Gorard and Chris Taylor have noted a fear is that the policy will contribute to a two-tier system through a number of mechanisms which will tend to hierarchically differentiate schools. One of these mechanisms is the opportunity to select up to 10% of their intake. They also warn that it is difficult to assess the likely advantages and drawbacks and that we should not ignore the complexity of the situation. We very much endorse that sentiment and look at some of that complexity now.

The composite prospectuses from the 141 authorities were examined and all schools (community, foundation and voluntary-aided) mentioned in the prospectuses as operating partial selection by aptitude or ability in 1999/2000 were recorded. Schools that select part of their intake by aptitude are by definition specialist schools. But specialist schools do not have to be selective and those that select part of their intake on the basis of general ability only are not specialist schools. Table 1 shows the number of schools in these different categories.

Table 1

Schools designated Specialist

Schools not designated specialist

Selection on aptitude only

Selection on aptitude and general ability

Selection on general ability only




As we have already mentioned the large majority of specialist schools do not at present formally select any part of their intake. The proportion that does, however, seems to be increasing. West et al found that only seven per cent (7%) of the 238 specialist schools designated by 1997 selected on the basis of aptitude in a particular subject. Our survey of the 141 authorities showed that 43 schools selected part of their intake on the basis of aptitude. This is 10.9% of the 395 schools designated as specialist by 1999. This is not including any specialist schools to be found in the 9 authorities not studied.

There is evidence from our study and from Yeomans et al who looked at the cases of twelve specialist schools, of little enthusiasm for selection on the part of managers of these schools. As Yeomans et al noted:

All of the case study schools, except one, which was located in a pre-existing local selective system, were comprehensive schools. None had changed their admissions policies as a result of their specialist status and there was no support for selection by aptitude. The schools had almost all increased their rolls and all were over-subscribed, although most had been popular prior to designation

Foundation and Voluntary aided schools predominated in the sub-set of specialist schools that selected by aptitude and/or general ability. Table 2 records the status of the 61 schools. Designated specialist schools are those that admit up to 10% on the basis of aptitude. Some may also be allowed to admit part of their intake on the basis of general ability if this was in place before 1997. Non-designated schools are those that admit part of their intake only on the basis of general ability. They do not admit any on the basis of aptitude.

Table 2. Types of schools selecting part of their intake by general ability or by aptitude.




Voluntary Aided


Designated Specialist















Table 3 shows the kinds of specialism offered and their frequency.

Table 3:Type of partially selective places offered by Specialism(3)








General Ability








Selection on the basis of musical aptitude or general ability was the most common. Other Arts, Sport and Technology are found less often and Language places are selected by only three schools in the 141 LEAs. In the majority of these LEAs the proportion of schools using partial selection to non-selective schools is small compared to the total number of schools within the LEA.

Twenty-eight of the 141 areas (20%) had schools that selected part of their intake by general ability and/or aptitude. When wholly selective areas and partially selective schools are looked at together parents in some one third of the 141 LEAs studied experience some form of selection. The percentage of children who are admitted to school on the basis of some kind of selection procedure is just under 9%. However we should note that the existence of even one selective school in an area could trigger significant responses (either aggressive or defensive) from other schools and have far reaching effects.

Schools' procedures for assessing relative aptitude

The issue for parents in choosing a partially selective school as their first preference is, in part, the same as that in wholly selective areas. Firstly, there is the uncertainty of whether their child will be successful in gaining a competitive place at a selective school and secondly, there are the implications for the remaining choices available to the parent of not gaining a place at such a school. One difference however is that in wholly selective areas the method of selection is well known, well tried and transparent whereas the method of selection in specialist schools is diverse, largely unaccountable and sometimes obscure.

The selective places we looked at in this study are by definition competitive and most are in schools that are over-subscribed (see Table 3).

Table 3. Number of partially selective schools over and under-subscribed


Selection on aptitude only

Selection on aptitude and general ability

Selection only on general ability


Over subscribed





Under subscribed





Unclear in prospectus










These schools therefore had some test or audition or other means of distinguishing the more from the less eligible. In the cases of selection by general ability this was performance in some form of verbal, non-verbal and mathematical reasoning. Schools either used locally prepared standardised tests (as in Essex or Kent) or published standardised tests such as those from NFER. Those admitting on the basis of aptitude in a particular subject used tests, trials, references or auditions to verify attainment and potential aptitude. Almost half the schools offering selective places by aptitude were in urban areas, including nearly a third located in London.

We looked at the details of admission procedure to see how these schools discriminated between more and less eligible applicants. How did they test for aptitude in the particular subject? We were only able to gain information on this from what was published in the composite prospectus and the detail provided there varied greatly from school to school. In some there was a clear statement, in others a general statement about there being a test and in the majority it simply referred parents to the school for details. The Code of Practice on School Admissions sets some general criteria for methods of assessment but leaves admission authorities to find their own method of establishing relative aptitude(4).

A selection of details from the prospectuses gives a flavour of the variety, and, in some, the high level of control and low level of accountability schools have for these procedures.

A foundation mixed comprehensive

15% aptitude in technology

  1. Places allocated to those 'who show above average aptitude in technology or are deemed selective in the County procedures for entrance to secondary education

  2. The first over-subscription criteria is general ability

A foundation mixed comprehensive:

15% on musical ability

  1. success in recognised music exams

  2. tuition in an instrument in school showing good progress (evidence from music teacher)

  3. regular membership of school or church choir with solo experience (evidence from choir trainer)

  4. success in composition improvisation e.g. NC Music KS2 (evidence from primary head teacher)

  5. application form on request from school

  6. interview and assessment of musical ability

A Foundation boys school:

10% aptitude in music, sport or drama

'To be considered under this criterion, evidence must be produced that a child has demonstrated a particular capacity to learn or develop skills in music, sport or drama and can benefit from the school's expertise and facilities in one of these areas. Priority will be given to those with the greatest aptitude.' No further details were given.

A VA boys school:

'Evidence of a strong and committed practical interest in music with regular and frequent participation in lessons and/or organised musical activity. Exam grades are not required...'

A questionnaire is to be filled in by 'a music teacher or some other independent person with knowledge of the applicant's musical activities'.

A mixed Foundation school:

10% 'chosen by the governors as likely to contribute to the general life of the school not directly related to academic ability for example, sporting, musical, dramatic or unusual talent.'

No details were given of the way the governors will choose

One Foundation school admission officer explained their arrangements for testing for aptitude in technology as follows,

For the technological aptitude we...opted for the NFER standardised tests and we have a special reserve paper on...abstract reasoning.

This school also selected 10% on the basis of musical aptitude and 5% on dance. In effect this school was selecting 25% of its intake on high ability in one form or another.

Selection by aptitude changes the balance of a school's intake in ways other than ability in one subject. High attainment in the specialist subjects is correlated with high levels of general attainment and some schools use tests for aptitude that are indistinguishable from tests for general ability. In addition high attainment in music, and language are likely to be correlated with a high level of social and material resources of the parents which in turn is correlated with social status and the lifestyle and values of higher status families(5). As Gorard and Taylor point out this imbalance in one year will be cumulative where there is a sibling over-subscription criterion and in so far as the attributes run in families. We know from the first stage of the project that the sibling over subscription criterion is widely used. Selection by aptitude is therefore an engine of segregation between schools within a particular area. This actual vertical differentiation will lead to better performance indicators relative to other schools in the area with the associated dangers of polarisation.

The management of intake by schools

If school managers perceive benefits in having a greater proportion of higher ability children and children from higher status families then they may also see that partial selection by aptitude offers a means to increase that proportion. Others have shown that some schools in particular contexts respond to the marketisation of education by attempting to manage their intake so as to increase the proportion from more desirable social groups and decrease those from less desirable.

We too found direct and indirect evidence in our interviews with school and LEA admission officers of some schools' attempts to manage their intakes in this way. One school officer explained that his mixed comprehensive school (anonymised as Blundell) is in competition with a number of selective schools. Blundell School is in a wholly selective area and in addition there are some very popular grammar schools in neighbouring LEAs to which pupils travel from Blundell's 'natural' catchment. The area is on the edge of a large city and all schools in Blundell's area are seen by some parents in the city as more desirable than the inner city schools. Blundell is consequently over-subscribed but not just from within the area. The school wishes to manage its intake to mitigate the multiple disadvantage it sees itself to suffer by having children who have not passed the selection test and its vulnerability (through not having the defence of being selective) to 'working class' families.

...We were trying to get rid of this group, because years and years ago the school when it first formed had this bad reputation and up until about seven years ago, about 30%, 35% of our intake was from [the city] and we felt that was part of the problem, that bringing sort of [city] pupils into a school like this, to some extent they drag it down to their tone...they tend to drag it down rather than us drag them up. The parents want to send them to a nice school, but they don't want the school rules to apply to their son or daughter. And we were committed with the siblings [Note: the interviewee means the sibling over-subscription criterion] to a vicious circle and quite often...another terrible intake. A lot of working class families had large families and you were committed to them sort of...And that's one of the reasons why they decided to get rid of the sibling link two years ago.

Another school took 45 out of an intake of 300 by a general ability test. It also managed its intake by taking slightly more than its standard number to always be full with no spare places.

What we do is always try and end up...with about 305, 306, 310...What we don't want to do is to be falling below 300 because clearly then the local authority would ask us to take on pupils and there are two categories that they might ask us to take. One would be children in trouble from other schools, which would be a bad risk...Or they are going to be children who are refugees who have significant learning and social problems(6).

One LEA officer in a densely populated large city explained how the same thing happened in his area. The LEA was having trouble fulfilling its statutory duty to place looked after and excluded children. The bulk of these children were being placed in the minority of community schools making it more difficult to change their relatively poor reputation. The LEA were consulting with the voluntary aided and foundation schools which made up the majority of schools in the area about taking emergency admissions but,

...They're very frosty about it...It just becomes an appalling vicious circle... You see it's all right spread between 21 schools. It's not all right if they all end up in the same school which is what's happening at the moment.

The effect of such intake management in a particular context can be polarisation. If there is a considerable difference in the perceived quality (however defined) of the schools on offer to a community there will be a momentum towards polarisation as the reputation of one school sinks and the intake becomes more and more disadvantaged. The following quotation from the same LEA representative illustrates the problem. There are spare places in some schools but parents do not want to take them up because of parental perception of them as bad schools.

This year we've got places in six schools, which is unprecedented, but we've got this incredible polarisation of parental perception of schools, which just gets worse all the time...It's fuelled by the league tables...It's fuelled by the controversy... we had here last year where parents took their children out of school and were refusing to go to the schools that did have vacancies and were slagging them off in the most unpleasant way in the press.

He goes on to illustrate the downward spiral to which this polarisation contributed:

Unfortunately since then one of the schools has gone into special measures and there's this vicious circle of a chicken and egg situation, yeah? I think one of the reasons it has gone into special measures is because of the poor press that came out about it because these parents were refusing to send their children there.

The existence of these local occurrences of polarisation is beyond doubt. They are observed by researchers and stakeholders. We also have well argued explanatory models in terms of parental perception, oversubscribed schools' ability to manage their intake through a variety of means including partial selection, the inability of perceived inferior schools to maintain and manage their intakes and the consequent stress laid on human and capital resources. It is worth re-emphasising why segregation and polarisation is a matter of concern. In addition to the major concerns about its effects on equity of provision and outcomes for all children polarisation creates an imbalance in the provision of places in most preferred and least preferred schools, high levels of dissatisfaction and anxiety on the part of parents and children, high levels of appeals, the vilification of some schools compared to others and a sense of desperation on the part of some parents. We can assume that being locally vilified and rejected by a significant portion of the community it serves will not have a positive effect on the work of children, teachers and support workers in a school. Further, once a stampede mentality takes hold it is very difficult for the admissions authorities in an area to manage. Transaction costs are high and relations between authorities are put under strain.

The quasi-market is of course based on the principle of this kind of extreme differentiation leading to the closing of unpopular schools. It may be that polarisation is confined to a few (albeit important) contexts, namely cities, where social inequality already existed, and where policies implementing marketisation (open enrolment, performance tables, diversity and over-subscription criteria) have provided further means for differentiation. Or it may be that, in whatever context, these policies tend to make schools more segregated with the potential for polarisation.

The distinction between aptitude and general ability

The distinction between selection by aptitude and selection by general ability is an important one. It is made in the School Standards and Framework act and has political significance. An important part of the Labour Party's successful strategy for regaining power in 1997 was the calming of the fears of professional and aspiring parents concerning education whilst also upholding the well established anti-selection position against a two tier system. Hence the slogan 'standards not structures', the allowance of existing selective admission procedures, an embargo on any new selection by general ability and a system of ballots of local parents to allow grammar schools to be abolished but not to create new ones.

However, a commitment to encouraging and providing for children who show exceptional aptitude in a particular subject has the advantage of symbolising a commitment to high standards and avoids the most controversial aspects of selection by general ability namely wholesale 11+ systems. The mechanism for ensuring that schools do not use aptitude as a means of creating wholly selective schools is the rule that only 10% of the intake can be selected by aptitude for any one specialism.

The idea of separate provision for different aptitudes has a long history in the Labour Party as the following quotations illustrate.

There are differences in intelligence among children as well as among adults. There are distinctions of mind and these are imposed by nature. I am afraid that that is a fact which we cannot get over. Children will be different in bent, and in intellectual capacity. There is a purpose in education and that is to draw out and develop the best in every child. Because children differ in their intellectual make up, it seems to me that different provision must be made...

Ellen Wilkinson 1946

...Equality of educational provision is not identity of educational provision, and it is important that there should be the greatest possible diversity of type amongst secondary schools.

R.H. Tawney 1922(7)

Stephen Pollard, a former research director at the Fabian society and now senior fellow at Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, wrote in response to the recent government White paper,

Advocates of selection have never wanted a return to the old tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. That was too narrow in its almost exclusive focus on academic children. A sensible selective system - such as that in Germany - would have schools, and parents, deciding which pupil is best suited to which type of school....the education department are now convinced that the only way to improve standards is to allow schools to specialise, to choose pupils who will most benefit from the specialisation and to teach a curriculum appropriate to that specialisation...- a de facto return to selection....It somehow seems churlish to criticise the white paper for not going far enough - it is so much better than anything anyone could have expected from Labour until so very recently. The back-door selection plans are a huge step in the right direction,...

The rationale offered by Tony Blair for the expansion of the specialist school programme presents the argument for highly differentiated provision although the place of selection in that process is not as clear as Pollard assumes.

'In education, all children are not the same. They don't have the same aptitudes and abilities, and schools which fail to recognise this will fail. The overhaul of the comprehensive system we propose for the second term is intended to come to terms with this reality... It is why we have trebled the number of specialist schools - and will take the number to at least 1,500 within five years as a staging post to specialist status for all schools ready for it.

Tony Blair 21 May 2001 Speech in Gravesend

Caroline Benn comments on the history of comprehensive education in Britain that

...most Labour leaders and education ministers, though committed to a degree of social mixing, privately believed in the limited availability of intelligence and the necessity of protecting an academic elite - if not in grammar schools, at least within the comprehensive.

In the specialist school programme the present government seems to be taking on this historical agenda for greater internal segregation within comprehensive schools whilst eschewing structural segregation between schools. Other examples of the same agenda are the insistence on streaming and setting and this would be coherent with a justification in terms of diversity within a comprehensive framework voiced by David Hargreaves (Hargreaves 1996a) and that seems closer to the government's intentions:

Closing the gap between the most and least effective school is, I hypothesise, more likely to be achieved through shared missions within diverse provision than through attempts to restrict diversity and choice - provided as always that the state is willing to intervene to preserve the comprehensive principle of forbidding schools to select on the basis of general ability, race, religion or social class and to intervene whenever there is evidence of deleterious effects of diversity on a minority of schools.

We believe there is evidence of some of these deleterious effects (and the consequent need for state intervention) and our arguments are presented in later sections. One other justification offered by Hargreaves(1996b) for diversity is that schools will be so different that they will inhibit the perception of a hierarchy because direct comparison will be confounded. We believe this is a mistaken belief since our findings strongly support the view that parents will choose on the basis of the social status of the intake and this is a criterion common to all and available to parents, through the informal mechanisms of the grapevine and reputation on which most parents depend.

The expansion of the specialist schools scheme is likely to lead to an increase in selection and is ambiguous on an important issue. The rationale offered by Tony Blair necessarily implies that only some children will need the specialist places to cater for their special aptitude but nothing is said about whether the children to benefit should be those admitted to the school in the normal way (as is the case with the great majority of specialist schools at the moment) or whether the specialist resource should be available on a competitive basis to any child willing to travel to the school. If the latter it implies the denial of up to 10% of places per specialism to local children and will almost certainly require selective admission arrangements. This element of selection again brings the contradiction between the inclusive and the exclusive principle to the fore.

But Yeomans et al found, 'there was no support for selection by aptitude' in their twelve case study schools. We too found principled objections to selection within schools. It may be that this is a view of the majority of school managers. Won't this principled position on the part of the majority counteract any drift towards selection? This may be the case but, in addition to the temptation to manage their intakes, there is one other pressure that the large increase in the specialist school programme will generate which could tip the balance and lead to much wider use of selection.

That potential pressure arises as follows. An admission authority of a school may operate a 'catchment area' admissions policy or an 'aptitude plus catchment area ' policy. If the former it favours those people living near to the school. If the latter it gives a chance to people outside the area who show an aptitude for a specialism. A problem may occur when a parent wants to apply for a place at a specialist school but is denied one because there is no aptitude test to enable the parent to have a chance of meeting the admission criteria and the places are allocated on the basis of catchment area. A parent could justifiably complain that there is no suitable alternative provision for which he or she could apply because, even with an expansion in the number of specialist schools, it is unlikely that there will be two specialist sports schools for example or two specialist arts schools for which the parent could effectively express a preference. The possible exception to this is densely populated areas such as London. There are therefore likely to be legal challenges on this basis the outcome of which may eventually require specialist schools to have selective arrangements in place so as to make access to specialist facilities equally available to all in the relevant area not just to those who happen to live nearby. This potential legal pressure may contribute to an increase in selectivity associated with the specialist school programme. There are, as we have seen, other pressures on some schools to become more selective. Given this the increase could be large with consequent problems of polarisation and segregation . This is not to predict that this will happen because it depends on many other factors including how those schools respond to the pressure in their particular local circumstances.

The expansion in the specialist schools programme

In summary our concern is as follows. Specialist school status in itself does not lead to a change in the intake of a school relative to other schools in an area. The use of the option to select does. Some schools in already volatile contexts feel the pressure to manage their intake because of local competition. The pressures for segregation are already present in these contexts. Some schools are presently using selection by aptitude as one way of managing their intake so as to increase the proportion of pupils from higher status socio-economic groups and there is little accountability or regulation of the way specialist schools select by aptitude. The expansion of the specialist school programme offers more opportunity therefore to others who have a similar motivation. Even if there is principled resistance to selection in many specialist schools an expansion of the number will create legal pressures for specialist schools to introduce selection by aptitude. In some areas where pressures for polarisation are already present the situation is likely to get worse leading to perceptions of superiority and inferiority in the eyes of parents contributing to a downward spiral for some schools that will be difficult to prevent with all of the unfortunate consequences of such polarisation.

This is not something that will necessarily happen. All that we and others have done is point out tendencies and mechanisms that will make it happen if unchecked. School leaders themselves might decide against selection on principle because of a commitment to comprehensive schooling. Estelle Morris explicitly stated when talking about the new White Paper that the government strategy is not to increase selection or segregation. Rather the aim is diversity and, interestingly, an increase in the networks for spreading good practice.

Nearly all existing Technology Colleges are comprehensive schools which accept pupils of a wide range of ability. It is expected that this will continue to be the case. Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 there is provision for schools with a specialism to select up to 10% of pupils by aptitude in the relevant specialism (if prescribed in Regulations) as long as this is not misused to select on the basis of general academic ability. Para 7 of Guidance to schools applying for specialist status September 2001.

Our view is that it is probably the case that there is a principled and political objection to an increase (or even continuation) of selection by general ability on the part of this government but that the 10% option for selection by aptitude will have similar effects(8).

Measures that should now be considered to mitigate the dangers inherent in this policy are to move away from the selective option completely. This however opens up the objection that the regulations do nothing to allow the meritocratic principle that those children within an area who might most benefit from the provision are excluded. This is therefore unlikely to happen. Short of that radical change there should be:


1. We are grateful to the DfES for permission to use the material (some of it unpublished) gathered in the Parent's Experience of Choosing a Secondary School project. This does not imply either that the DfES endorses all or any of it.

2. The project focused on transfer at 11 and of the 150 English LEAs 9 authorities were excluded from the sample because either they operated a different age of transfer, or they did not provide secondary education.

3. Other arts include dance, art and drama. The 'other' category refers to a school where there was insufficient information to categorise. The 'other' category refers to a school where there was insufficient information to categorise. It stated in the prospectus that part of the intake was selected but no further details were given of the specialism or procedure. It was a community school and was very much undersubscribed. In September 1999 there were only 108 applications for 180 places.

4. The following are the relevant sections:

5.15...When considering whether a pupil has an aptitude for a subject, the essential factor which an admission authority for a school must determine is whether a child has demonstrated a particular capacity to learn or to develop skills in that subject, and can benefit from the particular expertise and facilities at that school. Tests used to identify whether a pupil has an aptitude for a particular subject should be objective, have a distinctive subject focus and should not discriminate against applicants on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin, disability or family background.

5.16 A test for aptitude must test for the subject aptitude concerned and not test for ability or any other aptitude. (DfEE. 1999. Code of Practice: School Admissions: DfEE).

5. Evidence that the Schools Adjudicator is aware of this issue. One of the OSC decisions was to instruct a school to test for musical potential rather than musical attainment.

6. There were other schools that managed their intake defensively against the 'creaming off' of pupils by neighbouring schools. A common method was testing to admit in ability bands, 25% high ability 50% middle ability and 25% lower ability, in order to ensure a comprehensive intake. This can be done if the school is already oversubscribed but is not so easy if it has already become relatively unpopular.

7. Both of these quotations were used by John Marks in his arguments for the retention and expansion of grammar schools Marks, John. 1999. "CASE Seminar - Comprehensive Education: Examining the Evidence." Westminster Central Hall, London..

8. Some of the documentation concerning admissions supports this view. See for example the guidance to parents on objecting to the adjudicator, (Office of the Schools Adjudicator,. 2001. "Partial selection of pupils on ability or aptitude in local schools. Guidance for parents on how to object to admission arrangements. and section 5.11 and 5.12 in the School Admissions Code of Practice DfEE. 1999. Code of Practice: School Admissions: DfEE.)


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 01 October 2001