Key school ballot creates bitter divisions: The outcome of a vote by parents on whether Blatchington Mill School should opt out of local authority control will be known today. But whatever the result, the anger will take time to fade. Diana Hinds reports

AS SCHOOLS across the country ponder whether or not to opt out of local authority control, the experience of Blatchington Mill School in Hove, East Sussex, may serve as a cautionary tale. The result of the school's parental ballot on opting out will be announced today, but the build-up has been dogged by anger, doubt and acrimony on all sides.

If the 1,200-pupil comprehensive does become the first grant-maintained school in Conservative-controlled East Sussex, it will be a feather in the cap for the Government and its beleaguered opt-out policy. East Sussex is an authority that prides itself on good relations with its schools, and funding above the Government's standard assessment levels. But if Blatchington Mill decides to opt out, other schools in the county are bound to follow suit for fear of being left behind.

Those in favour of the school opting out, including the headmaster, Gordon Tuffnell, a majority of the governing body and some parents, like the idea of the increased revenue the school would attract in the first year, and of gaining total control over their budget, compared with 85 per cent control under the present system. But a large number of parents are alarmed at the prospect and feel the whole thing has been rushed through without adequate discussion. The school, they say, is being 'torn apart' in the process.

The first parents heard about the possibility of the school opting out was a letter from the governors in November last year saying that 'although there is a strong case for opting for grant-maintained status, in the present climate of political and economic uncertainty reflected among the views of our excellent staff, we have concluded that this is not the moment to ask parents to make such an important decision'.

A month later the governors wrote again to announce that a ballot would take place early in the new year. One of their number, Steve Buckel - acting as a parent - had helped to organise a petition of parents demanding a ballot. Signatures of 20 per cent of parents are needed to bring about a ballot, and Mr Buckel and his supporters obtained those of 821 out of about 1,800.

Mr Tuffnell said: 'This petition was organised without the governing body's knowledge or consent, and we would prefer it hadn't happened. We would rather have taken more time over this decision. It was very evident that people wanted longer to reflect.'

He said that he was very concerned about the bad feeling the ballot had generated, but argued that the procedure for opting out was flawed and partly to blame for the divisiveness.

Once the petition had been handed in, angry meetings with parents followed: one organised by the governors and one by the hastily-convened parents' group Concerned Over Opting Out. Mr Buckel accuses the parents' group of being in league with 'flying agitators' and the National Union of Teachers, which has contributed money to their 'If in doubt, don't opt out' campaign.

Objections that have been raised to opting out include financial uncertainty, lack of local government accountability if things go wrong, doubts over the governors' competence and the fact that so many parents seem confused.

'There's no guarantee there will be more money for the school in the longer term,' Fiona Hall said. 'What happens if we are not happy? Are we going to ring up Mr Patten and is he going to come on the phone 10 minutes later? Of course not,' Margot Redwood said.

These parents say they are very happy with the school, and praise its music, art, science and computer facilities. Other parents feel differently, however. In the national league tables of examination results, published last November, the school was just below average, with 34 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A-C, and some would like to see an improvement.

Lynn Witheridge, a parent who supports opting out but believes it has been 'badly handled' by the school, said: 'Although the school encourages lots of 'caring and sharing', standards are not very high educationally. Opting out will raise this issue with the governors.'

She also complained about the school's 'little tin huts' - a series of temporary buildings which the headmaster and governing body hope can be replaced by a permanent building, if the school opts out, with money from the Government's capital expenditure fund. East Sussex council has recently pledged pounds 390,000 for this purpose, but David Taylor, chairman of the governors, said about pounds 2m would be needed.

Teachers at Blatchington Mill are unenthusiastic; in an autumn ballot of teaching and ancillary staff, 90 per cent voted against, although they have no direct influence on the decision. One teacher said the ballot had caused 'uneasiness and depression' in the school. 'We are known as a good school in the area and we are managing OK. I don't see what we are going to gain by opting out.'

The heads of 12 primary schools in the area have supported the teachers by signing a statement expressing their concerns. 'If Blatchington Mill opts out it will receive 15 per cent of its budget from the central money which provides services to schools. If one school gets more, others get less,' it says.

There is great anxiety in both camps as to how the 'silent majority' - those parents who have neither signed petitions nor joined campaigns - will vote. As Tony Walton, a parent against opting out, put it: 'I'm worried that a lot of parents will vote in favour of opting out because they think it will put Blatchington Mill a cut above other schools. We just can't predict the result.'

(Photograph omitted)

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