An extremely select spot

John Major has a vision of a grammar school in every town. But it's not shared by most people in Milton Keynes, where controversy rages over plans for the first purpose-built grammar in a generation.
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Perhaps John Major is idly wondering this morning where his plans for a grammar school in every town will lead him. Will they take him on to electoral victory or will they vanish, along with his government, into the ether? If he is, he could do worse than to cast a watchful eye towards Milton Keynes.

If a general election win gives the Tories a chance to press ahead with a radical return to selective education it is here, in this town where a small group of Conservatives have been pushing for a grammar school for 15 years that the policy must be proved.

It is not impossible that on the morning after the victory a new, right- wing education secretary - say, Michael Portillo - will be asked to give the final go-ahead for Britain's first purpose-built grammar school in 30 years to be opened here. If, that is, the people of Milton Keynes want one.

And that, unfortunately for Mr Major, is a very big "if". There are certainly many people in the town - four out of every 10 - who believe in the principle of selective education. There are even quite a number who want a grammar school in the midst of the comprehensive schools of Milton Keynes. But when parents were consulted on specific plans drawn up by Buckinghamshire County Council, two-thirds said they wanted another comprehensive instead. Mr Portillo may have to decide whether the one-third of parents who want a selective system should be able to impose their will on those who do not.

Supporters of the grammar school plan will say that their substantial minority of parents should not be denied their rights. Opponents will argue that the school will turn the town's comprehensives into secondary moderns, thus depriving the majority of a comprehensive system with which they are happy.

None of this is new, of course. And if the rest of Britain waits as long as Milton Keynes has for a final decision on its grammar school plans, Mr Major could easily be sitting with his feet up in a retirement home before he sees the fruits of his policy.

The tale of the town's battle over selection goes back to the year young John Dransfield passed the 12-plus exam and won a place at a grammar school in Buckingham, 15 miles from his Milton Keynes home.

Naturally, there was some cheer in the Dransfield household when the news arrived and much consternation when, two weeks later, John's offer of a grammar school place was withdrawn on the grounds that there were enough successful candidates living within the catchment area.

Since then a drop in pupil numbers has eased the situation and more than 450 pupils from Milton Keynes, which is the only non-selective part of the county, travel to selective schools in Aylesbury Vale every day. But John's father, Andy, is still fighting for a grammar in his home town.

Pupil numbers in Milton Keynes are rising again, and a new school must be built. Now Mr Dransfield hopes that by next year, it may finally happen and Milton Keynes will have its own grammar school.

"I was hoping for an opening in September, 1987," he says. "It has been a long slog. It's like the Grand National. You can fall on any one of a number of hurdles but you get up and run again, or you pick yourself up and go into next year's race," he says.

Naturally, the grammar school plan has proved controversial. During the struggle, heads of the town's nine comprehensive schools launched a campaign of letters to parents and advertisements in local newspapers in an attempt to block it.

Three times between 1987 and 1992 the county council voted against the grammar school plan. Then in 1994, the small group of Conservatives who backed the plan won a breakthrough - the council decided to consult the public on the plan.

The final go-ahead was given in May last year, but the battle is still not over. The Labour-controlled Milton Keynes borough council, which is due to take over education in the area as a new unitary authority next April, is not amused by the suggestion that it should spend pounds 3m on building a grammar school it does not want. It is taking its case to a judicial review, and it is in no hurry. The borough hopes that instead of returning a Conservative government bent on increasing selection, the general election will bring in a Labour regime.

Until the outcome of the case is known, Buckinghamshire's proposal will continue to sit on Gillian Shephard's desk. Brian White, chairman of Milton Keynes' policy and resources committee, is happy for it to stay there. He opposes the plan because only a minority of parents want it, because of its cost and because it would cause traffic congestion in the centre of the town. The town does need a new school, he says, but a 1,500-place comprehensive would cost far less than a 900-place grammar plus a 900- place comprehensive. (Two separate schools would have to have more places because the grammar would attract back some from selective schools elsewhere.)

"I don't think it will ever get built," he says. "Even if Buckinghamshire manages to jump every single hurdle, they still aren't going to get it built by 1 April."

On 1 April, Milton Keynes will take over the running of education. If the Conservatives remain in power, they may use their new policy to force the grammar school plan through despite the opposition of both the local authority and a majority of parents. If Labour is in power, the borough will get its new comprehensive.

Mr Portillo's job would not be an easy one. Even some of the Buckinghamshire Conservatives have their doubts about the plan. Among them is Crispin Graves, chairman of the county's education committee and chairman of governors at a grammar school.

"I am an enthusiastic supporter of the selective system, but a single grammar school plumped in an area where there are no others must be questionable," he says. "It may take only the top four or five per cent of pupils, and I am not sure that is a good thing."

John Major is bound to have a nervous time over the next few months, for a number of well-known political reasons. If he does turn to Milton Keynes for reassurance that grammar schools will win him votes and smooth his future path, the town's experiences may give him very little comfort indeed.