Private schools that convert to state schools can still select pupils.

The education secretary Michael Gove is at the centre of a  controversal area over claims that he is intending to allow private schools to continue selecting pupils by their academic ability if the school converts over to the state sector.

Chief executive of the Independent Schools Association (ISA) Neil Roskillyspoke to the Guardian Newspaper that he had been informed that this selection policy was under consideration. The Department for Education vigorously denied the claims which would add a new facet to the determination to encourage the creation of independent academies, which stand at length from their local authorities and are able to devise their own curriculum.

When asked to encourage more selection in the state system last year Michael Gove told a meeting of Conservative MPs “My foot is hovering over the pedal;, I will have to see what my co-driver, Nick Clegg, has to say.”

Neil Roskilly said he understood that under these plans independent schools would lose their ability to charge fees and would have to choose their pupils from specific catchment areas, but that their traditional methods of selection could be retained.

He said: “What we understand is that independent schools, if they convert to academies, will be allowed to keep their selective status in exactly the same way as grammar schools. That’s the parallel. It is our understanding that it is under consideration. That would be an accurate description of where it sits.”

A government spokesman insisted that selection was illegal under the current law and that this would continue to be the case. He said: “No free school [academies] can use academic selection to admit pupils or charge fees – regardless of whether it used to be private.

“All schools have to comply with the tough, mandatory school admissions code, which specifically outlaws this – no ifs or buts. Nothing is going to change on this front.”

Roskilly’s comments were seized upon by those concerned by Gove’s vision for the country’s education system. Last week the Observer revealed that parents will be stripped of the right to object to the expansion of grammar schools under a new school admissions code laid before parliament. Campaigners against academic selection believe this could force some schools into a battle for survival as grammars expand to take on their neighbours’ best-performing pupils.

Francis Gilbert, of the Local Schools Network, a lobby group for the protection of the state school system, said any move towards more selection in the state sector would create a “social apartheid”. He added: “The problem with selection is that the overwhelming evidence shows it is pupils from wealthy families who get selected. Around 5% of pupils in grammar schools are on free school meals, while the average around the country is more like 20% of pupils. It is akin to social apartheid.”

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said: “If it is true that the Tory-led government will allow private schools to become state schools but continue to cherry-pick the best pupils, that is worrying news for those who believe in opportunity for all children. It seems that the government is trying to create a new wave of grammar schools by the back door.”

Roskilly, whose organisation represents and provides support to 300 fee-paying schools, said he believed only the most financially challenged independent schools would take up any offer from the government. In a survey of ISA members, 61.9% of headteachers said they would approve of a move to allow independent schools moving in to the state sector to retain the ability to select pupils.

More than 60% believed it would or might encourage independent schools to convert, although other factors would play a role. Nearly 11% said they would move into the state sector if they were allowed to continue to select.

However Neil Roskilly said the vast majority of his members were concerned that if they converted their future would be at the “whim” of politicians. He said: “The main reason they would convert is if they were desperate in the economic climate, if they were short of numbers and because of the economic squeeze.”

“There are some schools in the process of converting, but my view is that they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have to.” He added: “Government policy is being made up on the hoof. They want schools to be independent but schools that do convert will be less independent.”

Under the academies arrangements the school doesn’t have to apply the national curriculum. It is obviously free from local authority control, but its funding is severely restricted. Its funding is restricted to political whim and a truly independent school never would be.