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Shephard buzzes to Major's beat

John Major revealed his vision for the future of education this week. In a two-page report The TES looks at his proposals for standards and grant-maintained schools. An edited version of the Prime Minister's speech appears on page five.

Gillian Shephard believes the Prime Minister's support for independence for all state schools will revive the opt-out movement. Few outside the GM sector share that view.

Catholic and Anglican churches found little to tempt them in his plan for a fast track to grant-maintained status while parents decried a loss of their rights and the drive towards greater selection.

Attempts by Mr Major to woo schools down the GM route through cash incentives and special admission arrangements will further deepen the divide between local authority and opt-out schools.

The fast track - with the possibility of opting-out without holding a parental ballot - now threatens to drive a wedge between church and non-church schools.

Geoffrey Duncan, secretary of the Church of England board of education, would be very unhappy if that happened. "We have never intended that the claimed distinctiveness of church schools should denigrate or imply superiority over non-church schools.

"The board will have to consider whether the Prime Minister's speech should persuade it to modify its hitherto cautious guidelines recommending that C of E schools take all factors into account and base any decision on educational criteria."

Less than 4 per cent of the 7,260 church schools have opted out - 140 of 2,400 Catholic schools and 131 of 4,860 C of E schools.

Feelings against opting-out run high among Catholic bishops in the North who believe there are moral arguments about taking money away from other schools. And Catholic bishops have said publicly that if GM status is such a good thing why doesn't the Government make all schools opt out.

John Major's move to allow GM schools to retain the full proceeds of property sales, instead of half, will also have grave implications for both LEAs and church authorities.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, was quick to tone down Mr Major's remarks. Asked whether a fast track meant opting out without a vote, she said: "It could do, but we will be consulting others on this. I am open- minded about what we will do, but do it we shall."

Brother Francis, chair of the Association of Catholic GM headteachers, believes parental votes are now unnecessary - though the Catholic Education Service and Parents Opposed to Opting Out disagree. "It is absolutely insulting to parents with children in church schools to say they have less rights than other parents," said Helen Webster of POO.

Brother Francis, the head of St Francis Xavier in Liverpool, and Margaret Smart, from the Catholic Education Service, believed there is little to persuade church schools to opt out this side of an election.

How will the Government know if the strategy has worked? A doubling of GM schools by the general election? Mrs Shephard said: "I don't go in for these numbers, what I want is a flourishing sector with a lot of interest, with a buzz . . . I believe these measures will boost that buzz."

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