To you it may seem like Ambridge, to us it's Hell

Who'd have thought a decision to opt out would have divided a Somerset village? Not Brigid McConville
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The Independent Online
For the past six years I have looked forward to walking my children to Enmore school. Five minutes' chat in the playground with parents oiled the wheels of friendship and community. These days, I have to steel myself to go. Will I be snubbed again by certain parents? Which friend will confide her anxiety, hurt, even outrage, at what is going on?

The once happy atmosphere of this Somerset village primary school began to sour in January, when our governors and teachers said we would be better off grant maintained. Some parents, myself included, questioned their judgement and argued that the anti-opt out arguments should be given a fair hearing. Some governors reacted aggressively and dismissed us as "politically motivated" - a bit rich given that our chairman of governors is a former Conservative councillor. But within weeks, parents had voted 60:40 in favour.

The day the ballot was announced, our children said they heard corks popping in the staff room. It seemed to be over - until we found out that the would-be foundation governors for Enmore church school had been chosen without consulting the parochial church council.

People in the village cried foul and obtained 70 signatures on a protest letter to Gillian Shephard. In a school of some 100 children, 31 parents also backed an appeal against the ballot on grounds of misinformation. Governors from the school in the neighbouring village supported us with a third appeal.

Then a Sunday newspaper reported that villagers had cancelled covenants to the church and changed pews to avoid opponents. To outsiders, perhaps, it was a tale of "trouble in Ambridge"; to us it has meant lost sleep, wounding remarks and arguments replayed endlessly in our heads.

With a friend, I talked to governors about how we could recover our old affection and respect, but all that came clear was their own injured feelings.

Before term ended, I took our children to see the school in the next village. I had always actively supported Enmore, but how was I to back my children's education when I so doubted the sense and values of those in charge - and my children knew I did?

For they picked up the vibes. My 10-year-old told us she had heard a teacher saying, "Why are they doing it? They are evil, pure evil." She assumed - rightly or not - the teacher meant us. Yet she decided to stay on; this is her last year, we like her teacher and she has close friends. But our seven-year-old moved this autumn. So now every morning I quickly see one child into the playground and put the other into a car and head for the next village. He has settled happily, but still ducks his head, embarrassed, as he passes his old school. It wasn't until late September - when John Major was pushing for more opt-outs - that our appeal was finally rejected by his Minister. The school was due to go grant-maintained on Sunday 1 October.

On the Monday, to our delight, we heard that Somerset had won an injunction and would seek a judicial review. BBC news cameras filmed in the playground while governors denounced "the waste of taxpayers' money". The head sent a furious letter home - read on the way home, as usual, by the children.

Two days later in the High Court, Somerset dropped the case - a political hot potato. (The school and Department for Education and Employment were to meet their own costs.) Our head and chairman of governors immediately put GM in their letterhead and wrote of their relief and elation - "a happy day for us all".

This morning a friend rang to say she can't bear going to school to collect her child; the atmosphere is "horrible". Another fears a backlash may stop her helping at school. Both were once enthusiastic PTA supporters and fundraisers.

My son is now one of four village children who go to school elsewhere. Nine months ago I would never have thought it possible, but the dispute has divided our community. The school may have some more money this year, but at what cost?

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