Margaret Maden says she believes in 'grasping nettles by the bucketful'.

Certainly nobody could accuse the Warwickshire county education officer of failing to live up to her beliefs.

Ms Maden's plans to reorganise Warwickshire's schools - one of the most radical attempts to reshape a local education system ever attempted - will be the focus for education policymakers throughout Britain over the next few months.

Local politicians have nicknamed her the 'Ice Maiden' because of her composed manner. Colleagues and critics describe her as powerful and determined. She will need all her determination to carry through the changes she is proposing for the county's schools.

The problems that have led Ms Maden to dream up her plan are not unique to Warwickshire. Its pupil population has dropped by 20 per cent in 15 years, leaving 19,000 surplus places, costing pounds 4m a year to maintain.

Nationally, education officials estimate there are 1.3 million surplus places. Ministers have warned that they will step in to close schools with rolls so low that they are unviable.

Ms Maden's response to the surplus capacity has been so bold and sweeping that in less capable hands it could have seemed unhinged. She proposes to close or merge 64 rural schools, removing 3,600 surplus places from the county's primary schools. In rural areas, a fifth of primary school places are unfilled. Her plan will cut the surplus to 10 per cent. Middle schools will vanish: 56 of them, catering for pupils aged 8-12, will make way for primary schools for pupils aged 4-11. Secondary schools will take an extra year-group of children aged 11, thus eliminating most of their surplus places.

Councillors passed the plans by a small majority last month and Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, must now consider them. She will be watched very closely.

The Warwickshire scheme will become a test case for other school closure plans that will follow in its wake, as authorities across the country wrestle with the problem of falling rolls. Many of the schools facing closure in Warwickshire are threatening to opt out of local authority control to escape the chop. Yet if ministers allow them to opt out that would undermine another aim of government policy: to reduce the national surplus of school places.

The Warwickshire strategy has been executed with political astuteness.

Politicians from the main parties have been won over at least to some of the plans. A measure of Ms Maden's influence is the fact that she kept her strategy alive even after political control passed from Tory to Labour last spring. In fact the new ruling group grasped the issue with even more vigour than its predecessors and pressed ahead with a tighter timetable.

If Ms Maden has done well with the politicians, it is a different story with the parents, who have greeted the plan with unadulterated fury. In the year since the strategy was published, the county council has received more than 8,700 letters or alternative proposals, and set up more than 300 meetings.

One third of the plans have already been changed.

Ms Maden ruefully recalls long nights of meetings in far flung parts of the county: 'I cannot recall a single meeting where anybody praised us for anything.'

Ms Maden is an urban refugee. She recognises the attractions of village schools for parents desperate to escape the education jungle of big cities.

She first devised her plan soon after she left a senior job with the Inner London Education Authority to move to Warwickshire in 1987. She put it to local politicians when she was interviewed for promotion to her current job two years later.

Her case has been honed by months of presenting it to disbelieving parents in draughty school halls. An unfilled primary place costs pounds 170 per year and a secondary place pounds 270; at least pounds 36m must be found to bring the county's school buildings up to standard. The plan is expected to release pounds 29m for building works. It will also mean teachers' jobs will be lost, although many of those made redundant will be absorbed into the newly-expanded schools.

If the plan had only provoked fury it may have been manageable. But parents now have a powerful weapon at their disposal to resist education plans they do not like: they can opt out of local authority control.

Ironically, the plan was initially given impetus by a threat from secondary schools that they would opt-out en masse unless their buildings were repaired, surplus places filled and the entry age reduced to 11 to allow them to teach the full national curriculum. The solution has been to take resources away from primary and middle schools. Now a number of threatened primaries are planning to opt out to avoid closure, a move that would all but destroy the Maden plan.

Eight primaries have already held opt-out ballots, with more possibly to follow. George Cowcher, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council, which opposes the plans, believes that as many as 20 primaries could leave local authority control as a result.

'My worst case scenario is that all we will do is to drive a whole load of schools into grant-maintained status. In the south of the county we may not take any schools out of use, but we may put a division down the centre between those that are grant maintained and those that are not,' he said.

A case in point is Dunnington, a thriving school with 92 pupils in a leafy part of the county. To parents and staff, the plan to close the school appears perverse. In a ballot on opting out, 96 parents voted in favour and just one against.

The county has decided to offer Dunnington's pupils places at the newly-expanded Salford Priors junior and infant school, two miles up the road. Dunnington has no surplus places, but its picturesque building is supplemented by three temporary classrooms and the county says the accommodation is inadequate. If Mrs Shephard allows Dunnington to opt out, Salford Priors may not get its promised refurbishment.

Mary Preston, a parent governor with three children at the school, does not believe the rift with the local authority can be healed. 'We have decided that to be grant maintained is our best way forward. We don't want to stay with the county if it treats us like that. It could happen again in another year or two,' she said.

The scheme, however, has not only pitched village schools against the authority. It has set off an educational civil war with villages and schools fighting one another.

One of the bitterest battles has been between Napton on the Hill and Priors Marston, in the central area of the county. Their action groups had worked together until they were told that there would be just one primary school for both villages. After that, the collaboration stopped.

Priors Marston was convinced that, with the best buildings, it should have the new school. Napton, with a rapidly-growing population, was equally sure of its case. While Priors Marston ran a low-key campaign, Napton made headlines with a pledge by local mothers to have as many babies as possible to boost demand for the new school. A last-minute decision led to plans for a new school building in Napton. Priors Marston parents say they will not send their children there.

Ms Maden is moderately optimistic that, with a few changes, the county's plans will win approval from Mrs Shephard. Ms Maden expects there will be concessions to parental choice, but if Mrs Shephard allows opting out to reign supreme she will send all the wrong signals to other authorities attempting to tackle surplus places.

She puts Mrs Shephard's dilemma this way: 'How much weight and value do you place on a popular, successful school now, in 1994, which wants to opt out, as opposed to planning a strong school system for the next 10 to 15 years?

We are told we have got to take account of parental preferences and drive home value for money. Sometimes those things clash.'

That clash has caused warfare in the lanes of Warwickshire. Mrs Shephard will need all her political skills if she wants to avoid a string of similar battles across the country.

(Photographs omitted)

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