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Lunacy to leave these leafy lanes

Parents, teachers and their schools will have greeted last week's announcement from the Local Government Commission that Milton Keynes is to become a unitary authority with a mixture of optimism and relief.

Optimism flows from the confidence in the future of Milton Keynes as a burgeoning regional centre for business, educational and cultural activity. Relief reflects a view that a unitary authority is likely to be the most influential factor in denying the latest desperate attempts of Buckinghamshire County Council to build a grammar school in the new city.

For almost 25 years, the county council has maintained even-handed support for its comprehensive schools in Milton Keynes together with its grammar and secondary modern schools in the rest of Buckinghamshire. This apparently contradictory stance was born of and sustained by a long-standing sense of service and a "hands-off" approach to education administration characteristic of many Conservative-controlled shire authorities.

In fact, an apparent neutrality in the LEA's position was maintained as recently as spring of this year. A growing Milton Keynes - the population of 188,000 is expected to increase to 224,000 by the year 2005 - needs more secondary schools. Early in 1994, the county council undertook a major consultation exercise on the character of a new secondary school to serve the city's developing western flank. The three strands of this process - public meetings, a consultation document with response sheet, and a small-scale public opinion poll - all showed a majority in favour of a new school being comprehensive.

An observer might assume that the democratic processes would now be acted upon; but Buckinghamshire's councillors decided differently. As a "significant minority" favoured the grammar school option, it was suggested that rather than establish one large comprehensive, a smaller comprehensive could be built with a grammar school nearby. These bizarre possibilities were, thankfully, abandoned and planning proceeded for the new comprehensive.

Sanity and democracy appeared to hold sway, but it is unwise ever to underestimate the intricacies of power-brokering in the verdant byways of Buckinghamshire. During those restful summer months, a strange metamorphosis was taking place in county council thinking. Fed by the principle of the "significant minority" and hardened through a dogged process of attrition from more extreme elements, a new policy position emerged. Now, the authority favoured building a grammar school in Milton Keynes.

As if this were not enough, a new consultation process contains many other eccentric elements. For example, the county council - to meet its basic need for secondary places as well as its desire for a grammar school - is proposing that three new schools be built and that the authority be granted capital allocations above those demanded by the basic need for places.

The education authority, of course, is keen to secure a prestigious site for its new grammar school; the favoured location would cost another Pounds 3.7 million.

The importance of public consultation has clearly been central to the local authority in making its policy change, and it would be unfortunate if responses to the current consultation were at odds with the county council's desires. In order to lessen such a possibility, a draft response sheet which sought to provide a clear opportunity for voters to agree or disagree with the council's plans for a grammar school has been redrafted to diminish the likelihood of the county council receiving definitive advice from the people of Milton Keynes.

Recently, the Secretary of State has indicated a preference for specialisation rather than selection, and in doing so has fascinatingly echoed the words of Michael Barber, who has described specialisation as the enemy and not the bedfellow of selection. Such thoughts may have failed to reach the leafy lanes of Buckinghamshire, but this would be of no importance if the authority had maintained its time-honoured, supportive approach to all its schools. The crazed insistence of the county council to impose its will on its successor authority in Milton Keynes brings little credit to Buckinghamshire and to local government in general.

Proposing a unitary authority in Milton Keynes and heralding the demise of Buckinghamshire as an education authority is clearly a triumph of principle and common sense over lunacy.

John Wilkins is co-director of the Stantonbury Campus, Milton Keynes.

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