SCHOOLS will not be able to turn down less academic pupils in favour of the brightest children when setting their admissions policy.

This is one of the major changes Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has made to the education White Paper to try and head off a Labour backbench rebellion.

And Ms Kelly has also said that schools will be banned from interviewing parents to help select pupils.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended this U-turn, but still insists schools must be modernised.

But councillors and teaching unions in Swindon still have concerns.

The education White Paper called Higher Standards, Better Schools For All, which proposes a radical shake-up for schools, was first published in October. It is designed to give schools more independence and freedom through bodies such as self-governing trusts.

Ms Kelly had wanted schools to break away from local authority control and be able to set their own admissions policy.

However, fearing a backbench revolt, the changes announced to the White Paper yesterday now state that local authorities will have strategic control over admissions.

Ms Kelly said no trust school or any other maintained school can undertake selection by academic ability. Local authorities will not have the power to stop popular schools expanding, but Ms Kelly said that a school adjudicator would have to take account of fair access and the local authorities' strategic plans in settling disputes.

Councils will still be able to establish community schools.

But the reaction to the changes in Swindon has courted a cautious response.

Coun Garry Perkins (Con, Shaw and Nine Elms), Swindon Council's lead member for children's services, said: "The changes state that councils will have control over admissions for trust schools, but that doesn't help us in Swindon because we have foundation schools and church school's including Commonweal, Kingsdown and St Joseph's, which all set their own admission policy anyway.

"In Swindon we are trying to set the budget for the next four years but this is very difficult when education policies keep changing."

Phil Baker, Swindon branch secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: "I acknowledge the Government's efforts to improve the White Paper but I do not believe they fully understand the concerns of many people that schools in essence will become selective and as a result many children from the poorer families will be excluded from them."

Dick Mattick, Swindon branch secretary of the NASUWT union, said: "This is a step in the right direction but I do feel the best admissions system is for a pupil living in a particular area to go to the school in that area."

"Level playing field is needed"

FOR

THE Government says the essence of the changes is that schools should have the freedom to own their own assets, manage their own staff and develop their own independent culture and ethos.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly believes parental choice is key to improving education and thinks we need an education system designed around the individual, although in a letter to MPs she has admitted that the LEA (local education authority) must still play a role in admissions policy.

South Swindon MP Anne Snelgrove, is supporting the plans.

She said: "I am glad Ruth has shown she has listened to the views of MPs and parents on selection and the role of LEAs. The White Paper made clear the importance of fair admissions and the role of LEAs, but Ruth's letter strengthens those commitments and shows this has been a truly democratic process."

Speaking during a debate at Westminster about the reforms in November, Mrs Snelgrove, said: "I became an education adviser when the national curriculum was introduced in the late '80s, at a time when schools were encouraged to apply for grant-maintained status.

"I remember the way in which that undermined the whole system, with unfair admissions and unfair funding.

"We cannot reform the whole system without both the investment to back it up and the structures that will create a level playing field for every school.

"That is why I welcome the White Paper and look forward to those fair structures being introduced for schools in Swindon and throughout the country."

"Choice can close schools"

AGAINST

PHIL Baker, Swindon branch secretary of the ATL teaching union, does not believe the White Paper and more choice will benefit pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

He says the closure of Oakfield School in July 2000 is a good example to demonstrate how too much parental choice can spiral out of control.

The Walcot school was closed because of falling rolls. The council said it was not viable to keep a school with 402 pupils open which could house 719.

When it was shut down the pupils were distributed between Dorcan Technology College and Churchfields School.

Mr Baker said: "Will they never learn? We have previous experience in Swindon of popular' schools being allowed to expand at the expense of others.

"There were many pupils who were happy at Oakfield but their community school was closed because a popular school (Kingsdown) was allowed to expand, which tipped the viability of Oakfield staying open over the edge.

"There were some challenging pupils at Oakfield but the school was meeting their needs."

He added: "The parents who chose to send their pupils to Kingsdown got their choice but there was no choice for the parents of the Oakfield pupils when they were sent to Dorcan and Churchfields.

"The children then had to try to settle in to their new schools and one of the outcomes of the process was that Churchfields failed its Ofsted inspection.

"More parental choice does not always actually mean choice."