Admissions row disrupts county

Diane Spencer

Buckinghamshire has been thrown into further disarray over its school admissions' policy by a split in the ruling Conservative group over proposals to change its middle-school system.

Last week the education committee voted not to consult the public on lowering the age of transfer from eight to seven for middle schools and from 12 to 11 for secondary schools in September 1998, "in the light of resource constraints".

Three Conservatives, said to be worried about primary-school funds, voted against their group in a chaotic meeting. Primary headteachers pointed out that if the age of transfer dropped to 11, their schools would lose out as their top classes are funded in the same way as secondaries.

But the committee gave the go-ahead for schools in the Burnham area of the county which borders on Slough to transfer pupils at 11 plus from next September subsequent to approval from Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary.

The proposed changes to the age of transfer were forced on Buckinghamshire by Mrs Shephard's decision to allow some schools in neighbouring Slough to lower their entry age from 12 to 11. The Burnham schools take pupils from over the border and would have faced competition if they had not been able to lower their age of intake to match.

However, the situation was further complicated by the Education Secretary's ruling later in the summer to allow Beaconsfield High School, a girls' GM school, to lower its entry age. As there is no corresponding boys' school, the authority could face complications under equal opportunities legislation.

Education chairman Crispian Graves wanted to avoid an "unplanned and disorderly" change to the system of entry. He feared "a domino effect across the county" as GM schools would bid to change their entry age in a piecemeal fashion with "the consequent shambles". There are already rumours that this is happening.

"I'm a very worried man: I can see a situation developing where schools at opposite ends of a town have different age ranges. We are probably the last authority to have a middle-school system - we're out on a limb, but I doubt if a change to fit in with the majority will give children a better education, " said Mr Graves.

The council would also face huge capital and revenue costs, estimated at around Pounds 30 million, to increase the year groups as most secondaries are full. First schools are worried that they might not be viable if they lose their top year.

The full council is to debate the education committee's recommendation on November 23.

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