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Major taught lesson in parental choice

Britain's first purpose-built grant-maintained secondary will be determinedly comprehensive, thanks to parents and the head.

Blenheim High School in Epsom, Surrey will not help realise John Major's dream of a grammar in every town, as the flagship school demonstrates parental choice does not always give you the answer you want, even if you are Prime Minister.

The school will open its doors in September to children from 11 regardless of ability or aptitude. So far there have been 110 applications for the 120 places.

Nearby GM schools Glyn ADT Technology College and Rosebery operate partial selection in the face of hostility from other opted-out heads and the local authority.

Headteacher Mrs Victoria Musgrave is happy to comply with parents' comprehensive wishes. She said that while she understood the rationale behind the two schools introducing selection - 15 per cent at Glyn and 30 per cent at Rosebery "I wouldn't support it".

"In my opinion, sorting out the geese from the swans at 11 doesn't take account of the fact that children develop at different ages. The beauty of comprehensives is that as children develop they can be moved up accordingly, " she added.

Blenheim, which will eventually cater for some 1,200 pupils up to the age of 18, will set in maths, science, English and modern foreign languages.

But Mrs Musgrave said: "While academic sucess will be of major importance, we also believe it is our responsibility to create an environment in which personal success is encouraged whether that is in academic, in sporting, in practical or in social terms." Her last post was as deputy head at King Edward VI in Louth, Lincolnshire - a mixed selective school where 93 per cent of pupils gain five or more top grade GCSEs.

Inevitably the new job will put her in the spotlight. She has already been chosen to feature in a BBC education election special due to be televised next month.

She is undaunted by the prospect of a change of government: "I could work with whoever was in power but I would be sad to find selection was going to be promoted throughout the country.

"I think there are some excellent comprehensives that have produced some excellent results and give lots of children fantastic opportunities."

Her two older children went to comprehensives in Nottinghamshire, her younger two will go to comprehensives in Surrey. Mrs Musgrave, 44, came into teaching in 1985 after working in marketing.

Blenheim, named after a 1930s Derby winner, will promote the ethos of individual respect.

The Pounds 6.5 million school, designed by Department for Education and Employment architects, is taking over the Longmead Road site of the North East Surrey College of Technology. It is designed to meet a shortfall of around 1,000 school places estimated for 2002.

It was promoted by the Funding Agency for Schools and fought originally by the local authority, which put forward counter-proposals arguing that as all secondary schools in the Epsom and Ewell area are GM, a LEA school would give parents real choice.

Mrs Musgrave is keen to work with the LEA and is looking at buying in some of their services.

"Our relationship now is good. My philosophy is that we are here to provide the best education for the children, perhaps in the spirit of healthy competition. It is not about going out on a limb and being different. I want to work with everyone including the local authority."

Marie King-Hele, Surrey's education chair, said: "We have to work now to ensure that the school is a success."

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