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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015