The row comes during an increasingly strident series of exchanges between local authorities and government ministers who are committed to a target of 1,500 grant-maintained schools by April 1994. Fewer than 300 grant-maintained schools are in operation, although 607 schools have voted to opt out of local authority control in the past two years.
Lady Blatch admitted in a letter to Fred Riddell, chairman of the council's education committee, that the Department for Education had received no complaints of intimidation. She had accused Peter Housden, Nottinghamshire's director of education, of writing letters 'clearly designed to worry' parents voting on grant-maintained status. 'Every allegation we receive about misinformation or bullying tactics concerning ballots will be followed up rapidly,' Lady Blatch said.
The department has demanded explanations from the chief education officers of eight Labour-controlled authorities about letters sent to parents and governors involved in opting out ballots. The letters went to the south London borough of Merton, where John Major's old school, Rutlish, rejected grant-maintained status, Bolton, Salford, Sheffield, Bradford, Cleveland, and the London boroughs of Havering and Hammersmith and Fulham.
Parents at two Nottinghamshire schools voted by majorities of two and four votes to opt out, while the proposal was emphatically rejected at a third school.
Mr Riddell said yesterday: 'I wrote to Baroness Blatch asking for proof of her accusations because we had praise for the director of education from the governors of the schools who eventually opted out, saying he presented the case very fairly.'
He said Lady Blatch admitted no complaints of intimidation had been received, but did not apologise for her remarks which, in his view, attacked Mr Housden's professional integrity.
The Government had politicised the education debate to the extent where local government officials were being involved in 'political argy-bargy', Mr Riddell said. 'They try to throw up a smokescreen of abuse and character assassination to avoid addressing the facts.' Lady Blatch could not be contacted yesterday.
Mr Housden received a letter in similar terms from Leslie Webb, a senior department official. The department declined to comment.
Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, who was given a knighthood in the New Year Honours, said that headteachers and governors complained to him once or twice a week about intimidation, but did not wish to go on the record. 'There is great difficulty about trying to prove that there is intimidation, but we know it is going on,' he said.
Councils felt under threat, he said. 'The better ones put their case to schools fairly, but there are some who still stoop to behind-closed-doors whispers to heads and governors which gives rise to considerable distress.'
The Education Bill at present in its Commons Committee Stage aims to limit local authorities' ability to campaign against opting out and to make the balloting procedure simpler. But Local Schools Information, which is funded by local authorities, said the Government's target could only be met if about 1,400 schools held ballots over the next three terms.
The Bill has angered even those Conservative local authorities that support or tolerate opting out by preventing them from selling their advisory and support services, such as educational psychologists, after a two-year period.
A letter from Mr Webb to Brian Hughes, Bolton's director of education, hints at a possible compromise. 'The White Paper makes it clear that LEAs will continue to be able to trade at the margin of capacity,' Mr Webb said.
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