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Grammar go-ahead divides voter opinion

Standing under an umbrella in the pouring rain, Andy Dransfield talks like a man with a mission. "I am universally hated by the educational establishment, " he declares. "I am a thorn in their sides. For years I have analysed exam results in Milton Keynes and shown how relatively poor they are. People often tell me they think the secondary schools are abysmal."

Dransfield, self-employed software programmer, Tory county councillor and standard-bearer of a 10-year campaign to bring grammar-school education to the town, knows every vote could be vital. Loughton Park, the ward he is contesting for the new Milton Keynes unitary authority, might once have been a safe Tory district. But not any more. Even among the four-bedroomed houses, with their double garages and well-tended gardens, opinion is divided.

"I would like a grammar school," mother-of-two Hilary Harman tells Dransfield as he hands her a soggy leaflet. "Our secondary schools are appalling."

But David Seth, a 40-year-old father of two, has doubts: "I went to a comprehensive and it was OK. I'm not in favour of grammar schools."

Pointing to the number of parents who send their children to grammar schools outside Milton Keynes, Dransfield is confident his campaign is a vote winner.

It is a risky strategy, however. "If I come bottom among the Conservatives in this ward, I may have to concede that people don't want a grammar school, " he says, unconsciously echoing Labour's forecast.

Spending cuts, class sizes and nursery education are also raised on the doorsteps.

Labour will almost certainly be the largest party on the new council and is committed to preserving non-selective education. Laabour is supported by all nine secondary schools, four of which have opted out rather than become grammars.

However, the unitary authority may start life with an unwanted inheritance. At Dransfield's prompting Buckinghamshire has finally decided to build a grammar in Milton Keynes, a move that the Labour-controlled borough council is now challenging in the courts.

"We are not into boycotting things, so at the end of the day we would learn to live with it, but it would destroy the education system in Milton Keynes, " says borough council leader Nigel Long.

John Wilkins, co-director of the 2,400-pupil Stantonbury campus, agrees: "It is pure dogma, which one or two county councillors see as a panacea."

The borough council has worked with heads over its plans for the authority, which it hopes will deliver life-long learning, improved nursery education and better special-needs provision.

"It is about partnership with the schools," Long says."We are trying to avoid the debate about opting in and opting out. We have got to work together. "

Heads welcome the chance to escape the remote bureaucracy of county hall but warn that problems will not disappear overnight. "Some members of the new authority will have no experience of running an education department and they face a steep learning curve," says Roger Connibear, chair of a group representing secondary heads.

"They have seen huge sums of money and hope to be able to do so much with it but I wonder if it is as much as we are getting now. Things will get better but perhaps not as quickly as some people want."

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