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Leave us alone, GM heads urge politicians

John Major's dream of self-governing status for all state schools is causing serious problems not only in Cabinet but within the grant-maintained sector.

While ministers debate the merits - or demerits - of forcing all schools to opt-out, many GM heads are pleading: keep us out of the political arena. But with a general election imminent, all three party leaders claiming education as their number one priority and Mr Major describing his ambition as "no distant aspiration", it is unlikely that the politicians will leave them alone.

Many GM heads fear old wounds from battles with local authorities will be re-opened and say they simply want to be allowed to get on with their job. The trouble is they do not like the options presented for them by a future Labour or Liberal Democrat government which would see them either having to take on LEA governors or returned to council control.

"Leave well alone what is excellent," John Taylor, chair of governors at Chellaston School, Derby, told Bryan Davies, a member of Labour's education team and Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman this week. "Education is more important than political interference."

Leaving well alone though would not achieve John Major's ambition. Schools have demonstrated their unwillingness to go down the GM route - the number of ballots has dropped and the proportion of no votes increased - and the Government is left with the crucial question: what price parental choice? For forcing all schools into self-governing status, would almost certainly mean parental ballots would have to be scrapped.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, revealed this week that it was a dilemma which was being debated by the Government when she addressed the Grant-Maintained Schools conference in Birmingham. Ministers have set great store by parental choice. They have put parents on to governing bodies, increased open enrolment to give greater flexibility over places for their children, given them a vote in whether the school stays with the LEA or not, and with nursery vouchers will put purchasing power into their hands.

To get rid of parental choice over GMS would raise serious questions about democracy. But Mrs Shephard is under increasing pressure to set out where the Government stands, and she came as close this week as saying something would appear in the manifesto. "We are absolutely committed to widening choice and diversity," she told the conference.

Mrs Shephard made a spirited attack on Labour and local authorities while Bryan Davies, more used to addressing a further and higher education audience as the shadow spokesman on those sectors, struggled to define the difference between the new types of school proposed by his party for GM and LEA schools respectively.

Don Foster and his outright opposition to GM prompted heated debate, particularly on the Lib-Dems plans for opted-out schools to be brought into a framework of "light touch, strategic planning" LEAs.

Meanwhile a chair of governors said: "People say we shouldn't be political, but I think we should start thinking about where we are going to put our cross on that ballot paper."

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