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'No votes' in Patten's passion

John Major's desire that all schools should opt out is dividing his party and will not win it votes in the general election, according to a prominent academic.

A proposal to compel all secondary schools to opt out of local authority control is one of the measures being considered for the Conservative manifesto. This idea was mooted by John Patten, the former education secretary, at a private meeting at Tory party headquarters last January.

Gillian Shephard, theEducation and Employment Secretary, has, however, refused to say whether she backs compulsory grant-maintained status, and privately heads of opted out schools have been very unhappy that she has said nothing publicly about the issue for several months.

Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University, who was recently appointed by Mrs Shephard to help turn round the failing Hackney Downs school in London, said the Conservatives' obsession with nursery vouchers, opting out and the expansion of the Assisted Places Scheme arose from the belief that they needed to put "clear blue water" between themselves and the other parties if they were to win the next election.

But Professor Barber, who is also an adviser to Labour leader Tony Blair, said these were not obsessions shared by Mrs Shephard and her closest advisers. He told an audience at Langley school, Solihull, this week: "If that becomes the agenda of the general election, it will be a reversion to the more lunatic policies of 1992 and 1993."

Professor Barber, who is about to take up a new chair at London University Institute of Education, said that John Patten had presided over a period of free-market Stalinism between 1992 and 1994.

Mr Patten had attempted to force all schools to opt out, he gave himself more powers and refused to consult anyone . "That was the most disastrous year for policy-making in the 20th century," said Professor Barber.

Gillian Shephard represented a move towards consolidation, but Professor Barber said: "Will it survive as the political temperature rises in the run-up to the general election?" Professor Barber, who had been giving a lecture to mark the 21st birthday of Langley, a 930-pupil comprehensive in Solihull for 11 to 16-year-olds, told staff, governors and friends of the West Midlands school that no institution could come of age at a more critical period in educational history.

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