Plans for the most significant expansion of a grammar school in England for 50 years were given the green light yesterday.
Conservative-controlled Kent County Council voted overwhelmingly in favour of a plan to set up a "satellite" grammar school in Sevenoaks – the only town in the county without its own selective secondary school. Grammar schools elsewhere in the country are now expected to follow suit.
Under existing government legislation, approved in 1998, it is illegal to set up a new grammar school. However, a new school admissions code introduced earlier this year makes it easier for any existing school – grammar, academy or local authority maintained – to expand. As a result, any popular school can set up its own "satellite" schools.
Last night members of the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA) predicted grammar schools in other parts of England would be following in Sevenoak's footsteps. Likely areas for expansion include Birmingham and Lincolnshire – both Conservative-controlled authorities with oversubscribed grammar schools. Torquay Boys' Grammar School is understood to have floated a similar idea last year, although it now says it has no plans for expansion.
"I think there are certainly some areas of the country that would be interested in doing this," said Robert McCartney, chairman of the NGSA. "The trouble is that in three-quarters of the country they won't be able to because they have no grammar schools." He described yesterday's decision as evidence that the time for a revival of grammar schools had come.
Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman, said the Sevenoaks plan was an example of reintroducing selection through the "back door".
The Sevenoaks proposal stemmed from a petition signed by more than 2,600 parents who complained that currently around 1,150 pupils in the town had to spend up to two hours commuting to the nearest grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells,
Now councillors will have to determine which existing grammar school the Sevenoaks site will be a satellite of. They will also have to seek funding for the scheme. Andrew Shilling, one of the campaigners for the grammar school, said: "The absence of a Sevenoaks grammar school has a profoundly negative effect on local children.
"Every day over 1,000 Sevenoaks children have to travel to grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, a round trip of up to 25 miles." The 11-year-old population in the town is set to expand from 495 to 681 in the next seven years.
Around 25 of the 151 local authorities in England still have grammar schools in their area. They have been expanding for years now – even under Labour, after the Blair government introduced rules allowing over-subscribed schools to increase capacity – and currently cater for around 32,000 more pupils than they did in 1997.
Margaret Tulloch, from the anti-selection Comprehensive Future campaign group, described yesterday's decision as "the thin end of the wedge.
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