OFSTED STAR GRAMMAR. "It is such a divisive system that the sense of being an also-ran is very strong." Howard Thomas, headteacher, was talking about selection in Buckinghamshire but could have been describing the effect a list of England's best schools could have.
Success for one school implies criticism of another - or even suggests failure. When nine Buckinghamshire schools were listed by the chief inspector this week, celebrations at county hall were low-key.
"Nine isn't the real figure," said Steve Sharp, chief education officer. "It should be a lot more. While everyone is delighted for the schools that have got a mention, there will always be some that won't and that is a danger."
Chris Woodhead's roll of honour for Buckinghamshire - the last Tory-controlled local authority - comprised four grammar schools, one upper, one middle, two primaries and one special.
The Office for Standards in Education last year inspected some 40 schools in the county. Crispian Graves, education committee chairman, said: "To find that no fewer than nine are selected for special mention is a tremendous achievement."
But Mr Sharp said many more could have been included. "The most disappointed will no doubt be those that are fairly [geographically] close to a school on the list."
Winners of OFSTED Oscars are handed an advantage that has not gone unnoticed at Sir Henry Floyd, a 777-pupil mixed grammar in Aylesbury, mentioned for the second year running. "What Chris Woodhead has done is offer us a chance to be marketed," said its headteacher Desmond May.
Four grammars in Buckinghamshire were identified as outstandingly successful secondaries. None dropped below 95 per cent of pupils gaining five or more GCSEs grades A to C.
Sir Henry Floyd was also singled out for its work on the Young Enterprise scheme and links with industry. "Our boys and girls are getting a whole rounded education," said Mr May.
But he is in no doubt about what parents want: "It's those pieces of paper. Parents prize the idea of success in league tables."
Every day 400 children are bussed from Milton Keynes - the only part of Buckinghamshire which does not have selection - into the grammars of Buckingham and Aylesbury. Some leave home just after 7am to get to Sir Henry Floyd, where 46 staff use a variety of traditional and modern teaching styles in classes of no more than 30. There is a thriving sixth form and an impressive array of extra-curricular activities.
The same can be said for Holmer Green Upper, the 666-pupil school near High Wycombe that Howard Thomas has headed for 16 years.
Yet as one of 18 Buckinghamshire upper schools, Holmer Green knows well the flip-side of the selective system. "Those children who fail to pass the selection test come to school with a sense of failure and we work hard to overcome that psychological barrier," said Mr Thomas.
Holmer Green (motto: "We strive for excellence") was this week identified as good and improving. Forty-one per cent of its pupils this year achieved five or more A-C GCSEs. Its key stage 3 results show considerable improvement within a year, particularly in English.
"It says a great deal about Buckinghamshire's secondary education system that an upper school makes it into a list like this," said Mr Thomas.
Irene Perrin, senior teacher, added: "It shows that selection works as much for us as it does for the grammar schools."
The 45 teachers at the school use a mix of teaching styles, leaning towards whole-class and a shared vision. Average class sizes are 26 in junior school and 21 in senior. Two-thirds of sixth-formers went on to university last year.
Head prefect Emma Lailey, 15, said: "I wasn't one of the very bright in my first couple of years but the teachers' belief in me and the confidence that gave me helped me get on. I'm not surprised we're on a list. We're the best, aren't we?"