Split over grammar school in new town

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A THIRD attempt to establish a grammar school in Milton Keynes has alarmed teachers and divided parents.

Next week's decision by the Conservative-run Buckinghamshire County Council will be seen as one of the first tests of the Prime Minister's determination to engineer more diverse schooling through opting out and specialised 'magnet' schools.

The proposal is prompting comprehensive schools in the Milton Keynes area to consider opting out of local authority control to preserve the present system. The largest comprehensive, Stantonbury, obtained grant-maintained status when the introduction of academic selection was proposed in 1989.

Milton Keynes was set up 25 years ago as an island of comprehensive education in Buckinghamshire's 12-plus selective system at a time when Shirley Williams was Secretary of State for Education in a Labour government. The proposal to use a school site in the nearby village of Bletchley as a grammar school serving Milton Keynes thus has great symbolic importance for both supporters and opponents of selective schooling.

Tory councillors who are promoting the idea say it will be welcomed by parents, more than 200 of whom already send their children to grammar schools in other parts of Buckinghamshire. Competition will improve the Milton Keynes comprehensives, they say.

Opponents argue that creaming off bright pupils from the new town comprehensives will turn them into secondary moderns and damage the education offered to most children. They also note that 3,500 secondary children travel out of the selective areas of Buckinghamshire each year, most to comprehensive schools in other authorities.

At a meeting of the non-aligned MK Forum called to discuss the issue this week, no one was in favour of a grammar school in Milton Keynes. Some parents were concerned that the cost would prevent the building of a proposed secondary school in the new town's Eastern Flank area.

The grammar school proposal was passed by 14 votes to 13 at the county's education committee and will be considered on Thursday by the full council.