Shephard denies split over opt-out schools plan

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The Independent Online
Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, has dismissed reports of a split with the Prime Minister over plans to increase the number of schools opting out of local authority control.

Churches have united against plans to allow a fast-track opt-out which could do away with parental ballots in their schools and the consultation period on the plans has been extended.

But yesterday Mrs Shephard denied that there was any disagreement with Mr Major over the reforms, which he announced in a speech to grant-maintained school heads in September. It had been rumoured for some time that she was less keen on the plans than Mr Major and reports at the weekend suggested that she wanted them dropped.

The Government is looking for ways to revive its flagging policy of encouraging schools to become self-governing.

In the 1994-95 school year there were just 15 opt-out ballots among 4,000 voluntary-aided church schools and in nine of those parents voted against the proposal.

Mrs Shephard said her officials were still sifting through almost 2,000 responses to a range of options set out in a consultation paper. An announcement on the subject would be made in the New Year, she added.

"We have made it clear from start to finish, and so has the Prime Minister, that this is a consultation exercise with nothing ruled in and nothing ruled out. Whatever the results are, we shall of course be continuing our work, also announced in September, on seeing how best to spread the advantages of opting out," she said.

But last night the Opposition claimed the plans were among a number of education policies on which the Government was in disarray. Others include plans to hand over many student loans to the banks, which were postponed last week.

David Blunkett, Labour's Education spokesman, said the fact that 1,600 church schools had written in during the consultation must indicate that many were unhappy about it. "The Government has already had to retreat on student loans because its plans were ill-considered and ill-thought- out. Now it seems the same can be said for the proposals on fast-track opt-out for church schools. The churches aren't interested in these proposals and regard them as disruptive to their relationships with parents and their local communities," he said.

Among church leaders who oppose the plans is Canon Gerald Greenwood, director of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education and a member of the agency which funds grant-maintained schools. He has said removing the parental ballot would be "highly undesirable".

Six options were set out in the consultation paper, two of which would remove the parental ballot for church schools planning to opt out and would let governors decide. One would make all church schools opt out unless they specifically chose not to. The other, less radical, options would include shortening the existing process, extending local management so that schools controlled more of their budgets and removing local councils from governing bodies of church schools.

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