Anxious scenes from the mall

Eight weeks before taking over responsibility for education in Milton Keynes, Andrew Flack is worried. The information technology systems used by Buckinghamshire County Council and Milton Keynes Borough Council are different. He has only just got his full-time managers. Other posts remain unfilled.

But Mr Flack, surrounded by packing cases awaiting removal to a new (albeit temporary) office, is confident. "I am positive we will get through," he said.

Headteacher Julia Tyler is less optimistic. Her school, which was supposed to open 13 days after Milton Keynes became a unitary authority, is not ready.

Heronshaw First was due to take in around 40 nursery voucher-bearing children. Their parents will now have to put them in either playgroups or move them to other schools.

"I feel rather vulnerable," said Mrs Tyler. "I am concerned about the changeover (from Bucks to Milton Keynes) in terms of the building being ready, the equipment being there and everything going ahead smoothly. The delay is good for me in that it has given me a little more time for preparation, but it has caused problems for parents."

Milton Keynes's economic success has given it the fastest-growing population in the country - a quarter of whom are under 18. Between now and 2000, the population is expected to increase from 198,580 to 207,470. By 2010 there will be 228,590 people living in the borough.

Plans are already being made for a new school every year until 2003 and two will be open by September - Mrs Tyler's first school, Heronshaw, and a 1,000-place comprehensive called Shenley Brook End.

Milton Keynes is unlike any other part of Buckinghamshire - and possibly Britain. Its American-style grid of roads with wide, landscaped boulevards is a world away from the country lanes around Aylesbury, as are its huge shopping malls and pyramid-shaped cinema complex. It is flash, glass, high-tech.

Every new home is connected to the country's most extensive cable system providing up to 27 television and 18 radio channels, including the very latest satellite programmes.

In stark contrast to its bustling city centre, there are acres of open space and parkland where 20 million trees have been planted. Pedestrians and cyclists have their own separate network of travel routes.

Not surprisingly Milton Keynes, which considers itself a ground-breaking place, has done away with the traditional local government structure for its unitary authority. It has created four super directorates: * Learning and development, covers children's social services, education, library, community and economic development; * Neighbourhood services, including adult social services and housing; * Environment, spanning planning, transportation, environmental health and refuse collection; * Resources, which includes finance and personnel.

Learning and development is headed by Jill Stansfield, the former assistant director of the children's and community education services at the London borough of Lambeth. Andrew Flack, who worked for Buckinghamshire for 15 years, is the borough's director of education and library services.

Milton Keynes has 100 schools and 26,500 pupils. On the day it gains unitary status, two more schools are likely to opt out and will join the five which are already grant-maintained.

The authority estimates it will be up to Pounds 13 million short of what it needs to spend but does not yet have all the information it requires to make decisions about the budget. The education section of the learning and development directorate budget looks likely to be aboutPounds 71 million.

Budgets for the borough's 10 secondaries will be determined by the common funding formula for GM schools while its commitment to building new schools presents serious issues about capital funding.

And then there is the grammar school, approved by the county council but unwanted by Milton Keynes.

Earlier this month, lawyers for the borough council lost their fight in the Court of Appeal over the proposals for the Pounds 14m, 1,000-pupil school, which would be the first grammar school to be built in 30 years. The council is now considering appealing to the House of Lords.

Secondary heads in the borough have fallen out with Buckinghamshire because of the grammar school. Bruce Abbott, head of Leon School in Bletchley and the Secondary Heads Association convener for Milton Keynes, said: "We are looking forward to the change and hoping the new authority will be a new beginning, but we are a bit anxious about the practicalities, particularly the differences between the computer programmes."

He is unsure whether the new council structure will work, but added: "I think it is a good idea putting children's social services into education. It might enable us to make progress with disadvantaged children."

Mr Flack believes that it will take time to realise the potential of unitary status but that it is right for Milton Keynes because it is so different from the rest of Buckinghamshire. Politically, relationships between the two authorities have been strained, but at officer levels they have been good.

"The grammar school is a difficult diversion," said Mr Flack. "That, the Common Funding Formula and nursery vouchers are things you could do without when you are setting up a new authority."

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