Heads hit out over grammar school vision for Leighton

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A vision for an “annexe” grammar school to be built in either Leighton Buzzard or Dunstable has come underfire from headteachers at Vandyke and Cedars upper schools.

The idea is being investigated by Central Beds Council, with Cllr Mark Versallion, executive for education, stating last week: “It’s tentative but we’re seeking clarification from the Department of Education about what we can do.

“One of my duties is to be aware of any possiblities that may raise standards in educational outcomes.”

The move by CBC comes after the government recently approved the building of an annexe grammar school in Kent, three years after it was originally turned down.

Cllr Versallion said: “Now that the government has changed its position, I’ve asked this council to make enquiries and seek clarification from the DfE about what we’re allowed to do.

“Aylesbury Grammar School is only three miles away from the Bedfordshire border, so it’s relevant for us.

“We’ve got a very similar scenario with Kent where we’ve got three grammar schools outside the county. There are children in Central Bedfordshire getting on a bus every day to go to Aylesbury Grammar School.”

Vandyke Upper headteacher Tim Carroll described the news as “a disappointing development”.

He said: “The Secretary of State has said that her decision in Kent ‘will not set a precedent’ but clearly there are some who see it as doing just that.

“Selection at 11 does not raise standards in educational outcomes as results in Buckinghamshire and Kent amply demonstrate. It introduces unnecessary division when what we need are good comprehensive schools that bring students together rather than separating them on the basis of a test at age 11.

“While grammar schools will have their supporters, there is little demand for more secondary modern schools.

“As interesting as the wish is to introduce selection into our school system, it will not go unnoticed that this will be a proposal that introduces two tier rather than three tier education.

“If this is what the leaders of Central Bedfordshire Council want they should come out and say it so that the new schools planned for Leighton Buzzard reflect this now rather than hitching a ride on the coat-tails of selection.

At Cedars Upper, headteacher Steve Palmer said he had been been “surprised” by Cllr Versallion’s remarks.

He said: “Only a week earlier I had sat with other headteachers hearing about Central Bedfordshire’s ‘Partnership Vision for Education’ which makes no mention of grammar schools.

“It does talk about supporting the expansion of local popular and successful schools and with our increased numbers and best-ever GCSE results I would hope that Cedars would benefit from such support, as it is obviously more cost effective to expand a successful school than to build a new one.

“I don’t know how many parents have spoken to Mr Versallion about this issue but I do know that 170 of our 1,200 students actually come from addresses in Bucks or Milton Keynes and choose to come into Leighton Buzzard for their education with us.”

The government’s decision to approve the grammar school in Kent saw the Labour Party slamming education secretary Nicky Morgan for giving the thumbs up on the project.

In a statement to the LBO, the Labour group on Central Bedfordshire Council said: “The Labour group are opposed to grammar schools as recent findings from a study by the Institute of Education state that Grammar Schools have been no more successful than comprehensives at helping to ensure their pupils gain a university degree.

“It was also investigated whether grammar schools were beneficial for working class pupils who attended them and there is no statistical evidence to support this claim.”

Councillors Antonia Ryan and Tony Swain added: “Central Bedfordshire Council should be concentrating on making our schools exceptional so that every pupil has an equal opportunity to the best education.”

Secretary of the local Labour Party, Mike Bishop, said: “Councillor Versallion says he has been contacted by parents who have asked for grammar schools.

“These are the parents who believe their children will be advantaged by the idea. Some of them will find that their children, along with the vast majority of children in the area, won’t be selected.

“The few who might, just might, gain will be vastly outnumbered by the children who ‘fail’ to get a place and are assigned to a school that has been diminished by the loss of both high flying students and teachers. I would urge Councillor Versallion to drop this idea.”

Cllr Versallion added: “I’m not ideological about this. I know it’s a very emotive subject with passion just as strong on both sides of the argument.

“I’ve had a very interesting week of people saying we should never have got rid of them, while others say this is outrageous.”

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