So does Milton Keynes want a 'school for eggheads'?

The race is on to build the first new grammar school for 30 years. Lucy Ward reports
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Milton Keynes, famous for its roundabouts and grid-like street plan, is poised to make its mark on education. Last week, in an announcement issued with curiously little fanfare by the Department for Education and Employment, the new town won approval for its proposal to build the first state grammar school in Britain for 30 years.

Behind the latest development lies a twisting tale that owes more to roundabouts than to straight highways. For 10 years, councillors from both county and borough councils have battled over the scheme, amid a series of public consultations and high court reviews. Midway through the saga, a further plot twist emerged when the local government review decreed that Milton Keynes should be freed from the control of Buckinghamshire County Council to become a self-governing authority.

It seems that a pledge by the new, Labour-controlled unitary authority - to take power on 1 April - to continue the old borough council's fight to block the grammar school scheme bequeathed to it by Tory Buckinghamshire, will ensure that the story continues.

The origins of the tale go back to 1987, when Andy Dransfield, from Milton Keynes, sought a school place for his son. Rejecting the town's comprehensives, he looked to the grammar schools found in the rest of the county, but though his son qualified on ability there were no places available.

Dransfield junior finally went to an independent school, but his father embarked on a crusade to win for Milton Keynes' parents - including the 100 or so who were then sending their children to schools outside the city - the same choice afforded to those elsewhere in Buckinghamshire.

Mr Dransfield, a persuasive northerner with a self-confessed "bulldog determination", stood for and won a county council seat and set about persuading his Conservative group colleagues of the rightness of his cause. His proposal twice fell foul of the group's old-style Tory wariness of disrupting the city's education master-plan, under which neighbourhood comprehensives are developed as each area of the city is built.

But on the third attempt, in 1994, Councillor Dransfield and a small group of allies forced colleagues to countenance change, and to launch a public consultation on a scheme for a highly selective "super-grammar" to cream off the top 5 per cent of pupils. Though both sides in the battle agree on the outcome of the surveys, their interpretations of the findings could not be more different. For Brian White, chairman of Milton Keynes Borough Council Labour Group, two 60 per cent majority votes against the grammar school add up to a clear rejection. "The people have spoken," he says, "and they don't want change."

Councillor Dransfield, however, has other ideas. If 40 per cent of parents do want a grammar school, he claims, that is mandate enough to build one. "If Ford captured 40 per cent of the car market, that would be considered a huge share."

In the event, the next school built in Milton Keynes was a comprehensive, but, by 1995, the grammar proposal was back on the table, still backed by the irrepressible Councillor Dransfield. By now, the local government review was under way, and the Labour-led borough council, sensing freedom, was squaring up to the county more forcefully than ever, to block the scheme.

The borough had its sympathisers among the county's Tories, whose gentlemanly education committee chairman, Crispin Graves, made an impassioned speech to full council urging caution. Councillor Graves, a retired schoolmaster, still feels unease at the prospect of a "school for eggheads" skimming off Milton Keynes' brightest youngsters.

But in May 1995 the proposal was finally passed by the county council, and went to the Education Secretary for approval.

With permission for a 900-pupil grammar school granted, the future of the scheme is still far from secure. The county council, preparing to hand over responsibility for the school to an authority which passionately opposes it, has not yet managed to buy the proposed site, Campbell Park, from its owner, the Government Commission for New Towns.

Even if the county can find the pounds 4m needed, the borough has already revoked planning permission, and has told contractors tendering for building work that any contract issued will be terminated on 1 April.

The new Milton Keynes council's other stalling tactics include a legal appeal against the county's action - to force judicial review to date - and a pledge to refuse to recognise the grammar school's governing body, due to be appointed tomorrow.

Despite the prospect of a public inquiry over the site, Councillor Dransfield remains undaunted. Though he will lose his county council seat next month, thanks to the reorganisation, and has failed to win election to the unitary authority, he hopes to fight on as a governor of the still-non-existent school. The coming general election, he believes, offers a no-lose situation for the grammar lobby: either the Conservatives are victorious and push the plan through, or Labour gets in, and Milton Keynes council eventually turns Tory in reaction.

Councillor White, meanwhile, believes a change of government would see the scheme nailed for good