First grammar in 30 years threatens schools turmoil: Group of Conservatives forces change in policy. Wendy Berliner reports

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST purpose-built local authority grammar school in Britain for 30 years could open in Milton Keynes in September 1997.

The school would eventually offer 1,440 places and would be highly selective, initially taking only the top 5.5 per cent of the ability range.

It would throw into disarray Buckinghamshire County Council's master plan for Milton Keynes, in which neighbourhood compre hensives are developed as each new area of the city is built. A 1,660-pupil comprehensive is planned to cater for the Shenley Brook End area.

The county council has been forced to consider changing its plans by a small group of Conservative councillors.

Milton Keynes is the only part of Buckinghamshire with comprehen sives, the rest of the county has selective schools. The councillors, led by Andy Dransfield, argue that people in Milton Keynes should have the same choice of schools as parents in the rest of the county.

If the school was developed as a grammar school, hundreds of pupils who either did not take the entrance test or failed it would have to be bussed to comprehensives. Transport costs could approach pounds 500,000 a year.

Previously the council, the last Tory-controlled county council in England, has rejected attempts to introduce selection in Milton Keynes and refused public consultation, because it would involve rewriting the city's education plan.

This time it is circulating 45,000 booklets outlining the choices and asking people to tick a response sheet. Public meetings at local shools have revealed strong support for comprehensives.

A politically balanced panel of county councillors will look at the evidence from the public consultation and decide what to recommend to the council meeting in May. The final decision has to be taken by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, but in remarks to the Conservative local government conference this week, he appeared to encourage councils to present him with grammar school proposals.

Mr Dransfield said there was demand for a grammar school. He said 400 Milton Keynes children went to grammar schools in other parts of Buckinghamshire and about 300 went to private schools.

'In the last three years the numbers of Milton Keynes children taking the entrance tests for Buckinghamshire grammar schools has doubled - 440 took them last December,' he said. 'We don't just need one grammar, we need three.'

Teachers at the comprehensive schools in the city are incensed. Alan Brown, head of Ousedale Comprehensive School, who chairs the local branch of the Secondary Heads' Association. He said yesterday: 'All the heads are against this. It would be totally divisive. You can't have comprehensives and grammar schools. It would be the first stage towards reintroducing secondary moderns.'

The Secretary of State for Education yesterday gave the first two schools to be identified as 'failing' another six months to improve before carrying out his threat to send in rescue teams. John Patten reprieved Crook primary school, in Durham, and Brookside special school in Derbyshire, both of which were given damning reports by Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

Meanwhile at another school identified as failing, the head teacher said he would resign. County Drive primary school, in Felling, Gateshead, had failed to provide pupils with an acceptable standard of education, according to inspectors.