County's schools face turmoil over school age change faces schools turmoil

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A local authority is faced with a multi-million-pound school expansion scheme, including the building of two new secondary schools, because of a decision by Gillian Shephard to agree to a change in the secondary school transfer age in a neighbouring county.

The Secretary of State for Education's decision to allow secondary schools in Slough, Berkshire, to admit pupils from 11 instead of 12 will have a knock-on effect in Buckinghamshire. It threatens to close the county's middle schools - which take pupils aged eight to 12 - and force it to spend pounds 30m on expanding secondary schools to take pupils from the age of 11.

Councillors are angry that their education system, which produces some of the best GCSE results in the country, could face turmoil. Buckinghamshire is the last-remaining Conservative-controlled county council in England.

Crispin Graves, chairman of Buckinghamshire education committee, said he was "disappointed" that the council had been unable to persuade Mrs Shephard not to alter the transfer age in Slough.

Children in Slough transfer from middle schools to upper schools at the age of 12, while children in the rest of the county move from primary school at the age of 11. The dual system is a left-over from the days when Slough was part of Buckinghamshire, which operates a 12-plus transfer system. Last month, Gillian Shephard agreed that all Slough secondary schools - six local authority, one voluntary-aided and three grant-maintained - could take 11-year-olds from September next year.

Slough parents will now have the option of transferring their children to secondary school at 11 or 12. The majority are expected to opt for the earlier age to secure places in the school of their choice.

As a result, Buckinghamshire has put out consultation leaflets in Burnham, near Slough, asking parents if they want the age of transfer to be cut to 11 there. The two Buckinghamshire secondary schools in Burnham take half their pupils from Slough. If they continue to operate a later transfer age, they will not be able to take the Slough pupils and the numbers left would make the schools unviable.

In addition, Beaconsfield High School for Girls in Buckinghamshire, which is a grant-maintained grammar, has asked for permission to take children from 11 instead of 12. Mrs Shephard is awaiting the results of consultation, but has said she is minded to approve the change. If the age of leaving middle school was pegged at 11, the logical step would be to reduce the year of entry to seven, making middle schools unviable.

Last week Buckinghamshire reluctantly agreed to consult county- wide on a proposal to reduce the age of transfer to secondary education to 11.