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Fast track to bitterness

What are we to make of the absence from last week's Queen's Speech of the Prime Minister's promise of a "fast track" to grant-maintained status for voluntary aided schools? In September, he told the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation that church school governing bodies, with the agreement of their trustees and "the prime interests of parents at heart" should be allowed to opt out without exposing themselves to the "black propaganda or worse on the part of some councils". He said: "We will introduce legislation in the next year", subject to the consultation that Mrs Shephard was then preparing to launch.

Of course that was not all Mrs Shephard was preparing at the time. With exquisite timing, a leaked memo in her name revealed a few days later how little she shares John Major's enthusiasm for extending GM status. "The need to improve standards must not be overshadowed by arguments about the mechanics through which education is to be delivered," she warned Cabinet colleagues.

Has she, then, won the day? Not yet, it seems. The announcement of any such legislation has simply had to be deferred, for decency's sake, until after the consultation period. That was due to end this week, but has been extended by a week in the face of outrage at the skimpy four-week timetable. Even the extended period is brief to the point of peremptory. And the fact that it follows a recommendation by the Department for Education and Employment's own efficiency scrutiny of 10 weeks for such consultations has succcessfully added insult to the injury that the Churches and many of their schools detect in John Major's proposals.

Quite why Mr Major imagined church schools would be keen to ride roughshod over the views of parents is a mystery. Voluntary aided schools already control their own staff and admissions, so they have rather less to gain from GM status than a county school. Meanwhile the Church authorities are wary about where self-governing status leaves them.

John Major may, therefore, have bitten off more than he can chew by blundering into the delicate ecology of church and state schools. Certainly the Churches this week made it clear they regard his proposals as disastrous and divisive in practice and principle. Any attempt to legislate along these lines is now guaranteed to attract the bitterest opposition of the bishops, among others, in the House of Lords.

Nevertheless, there remains every prospect of Number 10 having its way and tacking measures designed to speed up opt-out procedures and circumvent parental opposition on to the Bill to allow GM schools to borrow against their assets. Even if it is enacted, it is unlikely to increase GM numbers substantially. John Major seems to have been misled into thinking church schools are particularly keen to opt out; the evidence suggests otherwise. Some 4.4 per cent of all schools in England have become grant maintained but only 2.8 per cent of Church of England schools.

But then, the reasons for these radical changes in the law have little to do with liberating the management of schools or improving education and everything to do with pre-election posturing. There needs to be a better reason for such legislation than a desire to discomfit a political opponent yet again over his choice of school for his son.

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