TODAY almost 500 girls sit the entrance exam for the country's top performing state secondary. Both they and the 121-year-old school are taking a huge leap into the dark.
For Kendrick School in Reading, where last year 100 per cent of pupils gained grades A to C in their GCSE exams, is a grant-maintained grammar.
Fewer than one in five girls sitting their 11-plus today will be successful. Marsha Elms, its headteacher, is more confident about the school's future.
Kendrick has opted for foundation status but will have to work alongside a novice authority - Reading set up just eight months ago after the break-up of Berkshire County Council.
Kendrick went GM in September 1996. The move did not have the unanimous support of governors; staff were generally against it and Mrs Elms was philosophically opposed.
But she said: "With the break-up of Berkshire we really felt that becoming GM would give us a little bit more independence."
Governor Julian Le Patourel added: "We knew that moving from local authority control wasn't likely to bring us a crock of gold."
In the event, the school got Pounds 500,000 - Pounds 400,000 spent on health and safety work and Pounds 100,000 getting rid of dry rot.
But it saw the amount of money available for staff development increase more than three-fold and teachers who were initially worried that opting out would affect their jobs have been won over.
The abolition of the county council had a big impact on staff and Stephen Brown, head of IT, said: "The links with the advisory teachers went and in some respects that was far more significant than the act of going GM."
Financially the future of the school is far more uncertain than when it went GM. Staff costs account for more than 80 per cent of Kendrick's Pounds 1.8 million annual budget, leaving around Pounds 400,000 for everything else. In a good year it makes Pounds 30,000 on lettings.
The school has no savings and Mr Le Patourel said: "We need every Pounds 1,000 that can be negotiated out of the situation."
Kendrick has a good relationship with Labour-run Reading. Mrs Elms said:
"We might be naive but we trust the council."
There may also be safety in numbers - Reading has five GM and three local authority schools. And because it takes pupils from Berkshire and beyond, Kendrick believes its grammar school status is safe.
Despite its academic record, it appears to be far from an exam factory. Pupils are competitive, but they are relaxed.
Mrs Elms has overcome her "philosophical concerns" about GM and selection. "I have seen the tremendous difference made to girls coming to a school like this. It would be morally unfair to take away something so good."