Church protest delays opt-out plans:the queen's speech

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Education Editor

Proposals to include clauses in the Bill creating a fast-track for church schools to become grant-maintained without a parental ballot have been delayed after fierce opposition from Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops.

The Department for Education and Employment said yesterday that it was still consulting on the plans. Anglican bishops will fight any proposals when they reach the House of Lords. They say church school parents should have the same right to vote on opting out as county school parents.

The Bishop of Coventry, the Right Rev Simon Barrington-Ward, said earlier this week that the plans were incompatible with the Christian message because they gave church schools a privileged position and disadvantaged other schools.

The Prime Minister announced his support for a fast-track for church schools to opt out in a speech in July as a way of making opting out more attractive. John Major said governors should be able to take the decision without consulting parents.

But even a church leader who is a member of the Government quango on opting out has condemned the plan.

Canon Gerald Greenwood, Southwark's diocesan director of education and a member of the Funding Agency for Schools board, has written to church school heads to say that his board believes that the removal of the requirement to hold a parental ballot is "highly undesirable . . . Where a school has gone grant-maintained, the success of such a venture depends on the continued support of the parents and a vote will have given clear evidence of their position".

The Church of England's board of education is expected to back this viewpoint.

Church officials are also strongly opposed to the idea in the Government consultation paper that all schools should be made grant-maintained unless they opt to remain with the local authority.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has extended the consultation period on church schools after protests from governors. Her department said that ministers had neither ruled in nor out any of the options.

There were only 15 ballots in 4,000 voluntary-aided or church schools on grant-maintained status between August 1994 and August 1995 and only six voted to opt out.

The new grant-maintained Schools Bill will allow opted out schools to borrow against their assets, thought to be worth about pounds 2bn.

They will also be able to keep all the money for selling off assets instead of giving half to local authorities as they do at present.

Critics say schools will start to sell off their playing fields and that the plans are not compatible with the Prime Minister's determination to promote sport.