Theresa May has told Conservative MPs she will not “turn the clock back” on grammar schools in England, but did not rule out some expansion.
The prime minister was addressing the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers on Wednesday evening.
It comes after a document outlining proposals to open new grammar schools was caught by a photographer outside Downing Street on Tuesday.
Labour said the policy would increase social exclusion if it went ahead.
The government intends to publish its plans for school reform in the autumn.
Grammar schools are state secondaries whose pupils are selected by examination at age 10 to 11. There are currently about 163 in England – out of some 3,000 state secondaries – and a further 69 in Northern Ireland.
But under a law created by the Labour government in 1998, no new grammar schools are allowed to open in England. Education policy is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelan
Theresa May sought to allay the concerns of those Conservative MPs who fear that any expansion of grammar schools could leave disadvantaged children further behind.
She made it clear that she would not “turn the clock back” to an era when children up and down the country were separated aged 11 on the basis of academic ability.
But she also pointed out that selection still exists in the system – not just in areas such as Kent and Trafford in Greater Manchester which still have grammar schools – and, as she put it, there is selection by house price where people often pay more to live in areas with outstanding schools.
Supporters of grammar schools were pleased that she seemed to be signalling there could be an expansion in areas where there is a demand for them and that a prohibition on new schools might well be lifted.
But opponents were also satisfied that she was not advocating a radical policy of a grammar school in every town, or imposing them where they were not wanted.