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Looser GM leash welcomed

The minnows at Manor primary in Byfleet, Surrey, are hoping to swim in the big pond of the state nursery sector before too long.

For under the White Paper, the private pre-school class for 65 children aged three and four could vanish. Governors at the grant-maintained school are looking again at a nursery to replace the private classes, which cost parents Pounds 3 a session.

Headteacher Mavis Knights believes such a move could be done quickly, as the school already has the space and staff. "It is children's right to have a nursery place. Places shouldn't be dependent on where you live or how affluent you are," she said.

The White Paper proposes to make it easier for GM schools to open nurseries and sixth forms.

Further education colleges have complained this will create a scramble for students while local authorities have objected to GM nurseries as the costs were recouped from their budgets.

Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Centre, said the two new freedoms for opted-out schools would be popular. She predicted a "tremendous blossoming", particularly of sixth-forms, and said: "GM schools feel local authority schools have had an advantage over them in being able to set up nurseries where they have not been allowed."

Manor primary, whose pre-school class is known as the Manor Minnows, applied twice to set up a nursery, but Surrey County Council objected. Despite there being three primary schools in the village there is no nursery, and Mrs Knights said private playgroups cost around Pounds 3.50 a session. A quarter of her pupils are on free meals, and she said: "There is no way those families could afford playgroup fees. We shall be looking into setting up a nursery."

In Derbyshire, the White Paper appeared to put Geoff Wynne, head of a 1,225-pupil grant-maintained school, in the enviable position of getting the sixth form he wants.

Turned down once already by the Education Secretary, a second application to reinstate the sixth form axed seven years ago is now with Gillian Shephard.

A decision is expected in September but Mr Wynne said: "How can the Secretary of State turn us down, having a published a White Paper saying she is going to make it easier to set up sixth forms?" If Mrs Shephard does reject the application for a sixth form from Noel-Baker community school, the head and governors will almost certainly ignore her ruling.

Merrill College, the GM school just a football pitch away from Noel-Baker, has had a sixth form for two years.

Richard Gilliland, Merrill's headteacher, understands the desire on the part of Noel-Baker to have a sixth form and said: "Given the apparent free-for-all, I don't see why they shouldn't."

* Ministers' proposals to send hit squads into failing grant-maintained schools should ensure no repeats of the lengthy dispute at Stratford School.

The East London school, which opted out in 1991, was promoted by the Government as an inner-city flagship, but proved an embarrassment as it turned into a battleground between its head and a group of mainly Muslim governors. Two years ago, it became the first GM school to fail an OFSTED inspection. It was taken off the failing schools list only in December.

Ministers now admit that the present system of appointing additional governors to help to turn round failing GM schools, or replacing some or all of the first governors, can be a slow remedy.

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