In two minds about the new grammars

The proposal to set up privately financed grammar schools has sparked controversy. Lucy Hodges hears reactions from heads in all sectors
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The Downing Street policy unit's proposal, revealed this week, to introduce privately financed state grammar schools all over the country could be dismissed as an electoral ploy, but many education observers are taking it seriously.

Is it an idea that will be seized upon by local groups of parents, community leaders and businessmen? Opinion is divided. Some grammar school supporters are ecstatic.

"We know there's a demand for grammar school places," said Margaret Dewar, chairman of the National Association for Grammar Schools, which represents 161 state grammars .

"Since the publicity surrounding the Harriet Harman case, I've had an enormous number of phone calls asking about grammar schools. People didn't know such schools still existed. Anything that gives parents more choice is to be welcomed."

Others are not so sure. James Miller, headmaster of Newcastle's elite Royal Grammar School (founded in 1525), believes demand will depend on what other choices parents have, on the quality, for example, of the other local schools, and on the fees charged by independent schools.

Establishing a new school is a daunting undertaking at the best of times, requiring millions of pounds of capital to be raised from benefactors and from companies whose raison d'etre is to make a profit rather than fund school buildings. Mr Miller reckons it would cost pounds 10m to set up a decent independent school ."I'm very dubious about whether it is financially feasible," he says.

Echoing his scepticism, John Wilkins, chairman of the Association of Grant-Maintained Schools and co-director of Stantonbury campus, a pair of comprehensives in Milton Keynes, says: "The costs, both capital and recurrent, are enormous, so one must be sceptical about whether this could be a major initiative."

From this week's press reports it appears that Norman Blackwell, head of the Downing Street policy unit, envisages the capital costs of the new grammar schools coming from the private sector but the cost of educating pupils coming from government. The schools would be grant maintained. They would therefore be removed from local authority control, providing a free education to all children who won places by selective examination.

It is difficult to see such schools failing once they were established, such is the lure of free education and the grammar school label. "I think this is a very good idea," says Simon Larter, deputy head of Northamptonshire Grammar, a school set up in 1989 by a parent, which now has 180 boys and charges annual fees of pounds 4,800.

"There is a group of parents out there who want a grammar school education for their child, one that is rigorous and teaches separate subjects rather than combined sciences or humanities," he says.

Northamptonshire Grammar provides a salutary lesson in the risks of setting up new schools, however. Although Mr Larter extols its GCSE results (87 per cent received A to C "pass" grades last year), its achievements on the rugby field and its drama, the school has been slow to establish itself.

The reason? It is competing against the respected Northampton School for Boys, a grant-maintained comprehensive and former grammar school, which has superb facilities and a glittering reputation for technology, sport and the arts.

Crucially, the A-level results at Northampton School for Boys are better than Northamptonshire Grammar's. The big question is whether a grammar school providing free education in Northampton would fare better. The answer is probably yes.

Other new schools that charge fees and call themselves grammars have taken off. The most notable is the mixed Leicester Grammar, set up in 1981, which has grown to almost 600 pupils and become a member of the Headmasters' Conference, the exclusive grouping of private school heads, in record time.

Its head, John Sugden, is quite sure there is demand for more grammars, particularly if the education is free. "I would have thought that all cities would like the idea of having a city grammar where the children could go without having to pay," he said.

One of the newest fee-paying grammars is in Derby. Like other towns, its grammar schools were closed down when the county went comprehensive. Mrs Thatcher signed the closure orders for its two former grammar schools in 1972 when she was Secretary of State for Education.

The new Derby Grammar is a boys' school whose first five years have been secured financially by private benefactors, according to Roger Waller, its head. It opened last September with 28 boys aged 11, paying fees of pounds 4,200 a year.

As a fan of grammar schools, Mr Waller believes the Downing Street proposal is a good one. Would he consider opting to become grant- maintained to secure his school's long-term future and attract cleverer boys?

"Certainly going grant-maintained is an option," he says cautiously. But the drawback is self-evident - a loss of autonomy to central government. "The beauty of being in an independent school is that you are outside changes in government policy," he says.

Other heads of independent grammar schools are against the idea of going grant-maintained, as has been made possible under the 1993 Act. The exceptions are four Roman Catholic grammar schools in the Wirral and Liverpool which either have or are in the process of applying for GM status because they feel they can better fulfil their mission of taking children regardless of background.

Predictably, heads of comprehensives were unenthusiastic about the Downing Street proposal, echoing perhaps the doubts of the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, who is known to be keener to see the creation of new specialist schools rather than more grammar schools (as reported in the Independent this week).

Bruce Liddington, head of the grant-maintained comprehensive Northampton School for Boys, agrees with her. He thinks the grammar debate is dead, but he believes standards could be raised dramatically if comprehensive schools opted to specialise in technology, sport, art or other subjects. His school had chosen to specialise in all three areas and had seen its standards "rocket up".

John Wilkins, whose association represents two-thirds of all GM schools, is afraid of further fragmentation of the state system of education. "I think the majority of GM schools would think it a great mistake to disrupt established patterns of school provision in different parts of the country," he says

Perhaps more important, however, is Mr Wilkins's concern for the pupils who will not be catered for in a new raft of grammar schools established by a possible future Conservative government. The most able - the elite - have always been well-educated in the British education system, he points out. It is the majority of pupils who are not going on to university who get a raw deal and whom the country needs to educate properly if it is to prosper in the 21st century.

Mr Wilkins has an unlikely supporter in Martin Stephen, head of Manchester Grammar School, one of the most selective schools in the country. "Nothing of what I have read of these proposals tells me what will happen to people who do not go to these grammar schools," says Mr Stephen. "That is what concerns me. You have to cater for all abilities."