Tory's slip-up delays new state grammar school

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The Independent Online
A plan to launch the first purpose-built state grammar school in Britain for 30 years failed yesterday when a Conservative Buckinghamshire county councillor made a mistake and voted the wrong way.

By a majority of one, the county council agreed to delay issuing public notices to set up a 1,000-place grammar school opening in September 1998 in Milton Keynes until the outcome of the local government review is known.

Under the review, Milton Keynes is widely expected to be separated from Buckinghamshire and become a unitary authority. The Milton Keynes Borough Council is a Labour stronghold staunchly opposed to building a grammar school in an area served by comprehensives. It has threatened to seek a judicial review to prevent Buckinghamshire County Council issuing the notices .

Yesterday's meeting was an extraordinary affair which split the controlling Tory group and ended on a note of high drama.

Councillors were asked to say yes or no to the delaying amendment and one Tory, Hugh Carey, elected only recently for Buckingham, said yes by mistake. He corrected himself immediately and at the end of the voting appealed for his second vote to be recorded.

But Ian Crookall, the county secretary and solicitor, said the first vote had to stand. The grammar school proponents lost by 31 votes to 30. Mr Carey said after the meeting that he would be writing to his colleagues but declined further comment.

The Conservative chairman of the education committee, Crispin Graves, who has been besieged by teachers and governors protesting about the proposal, voted with the opposition for delay after an impassioned speech urging caution. His vice- chair, fellow Conservative Brenda Wickham, abstained, and 10 other Conservative councillors were not at the debate.

Some are believed not to have tried too hard to attend a meeting to vote for a plan which could take money away from schools in their wards.

After the meeting Mr Graves, whose position as chairman of the education committee may now be in jeopardy , said: "I personally believe the right decision has been taken."

If it is built, there will be 330 surplus places in Milton Keynes even though another two planned comprehensives for the new town will be reduced in size to offset the over-capacity created by the new school. It could cost the council an extra £3m at a time when Government cutbacks are squeezing school budgets hard and Buckinghamshire schools are waiting for £14m for building development.

Parents in Milton Keynes were consulted twice last year over whether they wanted a grammar school. Each time most were against but a majority of parents of younger children, whose children would be old enough to go to secondary school by the time the grammar school was open, were in favour.

The rest of Buckinghamshire has selective schools. Some 400 Milton Keynes children are pupils in them. Some 300 Milton Keynes children are believed to attend fee paying selective schools in Bedford.

Andy Dransfield, a Milton Keynes Conservative on Buckinghamshire County Council, and one of the leaders of the grammar school lobby, argues that Milton Keynes parents should have the same choice as other Buckinghamshire parents.

Last night he said they hoped to bring the issue back to the next meeting of the education committee in April. "We didn't lose the argument - we lost on a technical point. It's not over," said Mr Dransfield.