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Prep school votes could rule in Ripon

Clare Dean reports on the mid-point of a closely fought campaign to decide the fate of an ancient grammar school.

A QUARTER of parents eligible to vote in the first ballot on selection send their children to private schools, The TES can reveal this week.

Their votes could be vital in determining the fate of the 450-year-old Ripon grammar school, where the result is widely predicted to be on a knife-edge.

The figures have been confirmed by Electoral Reform Ballot Services and the news comes mid-way in the voting period with all papers due to be returned by 5pm on March 10.

Some 2,935 parents with children at 15 feeder schools, including one outside the town, are eligible to vote.

Victory in the ballot would mean Ripon grammar - attended briefly by Conservative leader William Hague - scrapping its 11-plus exam from September 2002 and admitting pupils of all abilities. An 11-year-old Mr Hague won a scholarship to the then state boarding school, but left after a few months because he did not like it.

Videos and leaflets produced by the pro-grammar supporters have been distributed to parents, while anti-selection campaigners are encouraging people to vote.

Alan Jones, the grammar school's headteacher, stressed it was still very much business as usual.

"We have said in the staffroom, in assemblies with pupils and in my lette to parents that we will strive to ensure that this is the case at a potentially distracting time."

But it is clear that the high-profile ballot is taking its toll.

Debbie Atkins from the Ripon Campaign for State for Education said: "It has been horrendous. I resent the fact that the Government is putting us through this.

"Tony Blair says education is the Government's number one priority. It should be the number one responsibility. Instead he has placed responsibility in the hands of parents like me."

Leading Conservatives have predicted that, should Ripon go, there will be a domino effect with grammar schools being lost across the Midlands and in north Kent.

Kent, which has 33 grammar schools, has just been told that the number of signatures needed to trigger a ballot is 45,959. This is far fewer than both the county council and STEP (Stop the Eleven Plus) estimated.

Martin Frey, STEP spokesman, said: "This makes us all the more committed and confident to go all out for Kent - the big one."

Elspeth Insch, head of King Edward VI Handsworth, the Birmingham girls' grammar school, admitted: "Ripon is as borderline as anywhere will be."

But she said: "I don't think it will fall. If it does, that will just increase the strength of the pro-grammar school lobby. It will not demoralise us - the reverse will happen."

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