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Planners' dreams fade in selective confusion

Voters in a key marginal are wondering if the161st grammar school could be created under Labour. Julie Harris reports

Post-war planners' dreams of a brave new city in Milton Keynes are being thrown into muddle by plans for a Pounds 14m super grammar school.

Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's decision to approve plans for the 161st grammar and turn down a scheme for a new comprehensive will be a key election issue as Labour battles to unseat a Tory with a slim majority.

Planners who created the "new city" envisaged a community secondary within walking distance for all pupils. However, children living on the rapidly-growing housing estates on the eastern flank of the city have to travel to secondary schools up to five miles away.

The selection issue has split the community and enraged heads and the Labour-controlled borough council. The problem has been hotly debated in Milton Keynes for a decade. Now it looks likely to take centre stage during the general election battle over marginal Milton Keynes South West.

Currently, Tory Barry Legg holds the seat with a 4,687 majority. It has been identified by Labour as one of the key seats it needs to win to form the next government.

Tory-controlled Buckinghamshire County Council will hand over control of Milton Keynes in 18 days to make way for the new unitary authority. But the council is still forging ahead with plans to introduce the first grammar in the face of opposition from the in-coming authority.

Buckinghamshire County Council says if the grammar school serves the whole of Milton Keynes it would select the top five per cent of 11-year-olds. The admission policy would be determined by the admission authority, which would be Milton Keynes Council, unless the school decided to opt out of local authority control - a decision that cannot be made until the school has a headteacher, governing body and parents.

Tory county councillor, Andy Dransfield, has been the driving force behind the grammar school plan for 10 years. He believes selection will boost standards and adds that 400 pupils already travel from the city to attend successful Buckinghamshire grammars.

"I believe grammar schools should be everywhere," he said. "If Labour gets elected, we may have to wait a bit."

However, two consultation exercises carried out by the county council showed six out of 10 parents were opposed to a grammar.

Labour candidate Dr Phyllis Starkey said the grammar would inevitably be an issue during the election campaign.

Bob Nash supports a new grammar school. "We have got Japanese schools here and everything, but we don't have a choice about a grammar school. We have always voted Labour, but can't see why people can't have a choice."

Lindy Crocombe, a nursery nurse and mother, said: "The majority of people's views have been totally ignored over the grammar school. It would only serve a small minority."

Kevin Wilson, the borough council leader, said: "To impose a grammar school on the city would rip the heart out of everything planned for it."

He says that it will cost at least Pounds 150,000 a year to bus pupils to the 1,080-place grammar. And building the school on a plot of land in the middle of Milton Keynes would cause congestion and upset the city's 1967 masterplan, he added.

Mr Wilson said: "Milton Keynes has an extremely successful community comprehensive system. It was designed with that in mind. The whole planning, educational and environmental network is pointed highly towards continuation of that system."

The borough council says a comprehensive is desperately needed in the east of the city to deal with Milton Keynes' swelling population, which has grown from 67,800 in 1971 to 192,000.

Heads are keen to hear how Labour would tackle plans for the grammar. Labour has said it will review the grammar if it wins the general election but has refused to commit itself to scrapping it.

A Labour spokesman said: "This situation is unique. The Secretary of State has given approval and we will review that. We are not in favour of any new grammar schools or future selection. We want to concentrate on raising standards in all our schools."

Roger Conibear is head of Denbigh School, the last of five secondaries in Milton Keynes to opt out. He chairs a group of secondary heads who oppose selection.

He said: "It would be most farcical if the next grammar school is built during a Labour government."

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