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Shephard urged to extend deadline

Parents and governors say the four-week consultation for the church school opt-out plan is too short. Estelle Maxwell reports.

The Government has broken its own recommendations over the length of public consultation in its rush to get a fast track for church schools seeking grant-maintained status.

Governors, parents and local authorities have been given just a month to discuss the proposal - six weeks less than the recommended 10 weeks excluding holidays laid down in the Department for Education and Employment's efficiency scrutiny report.

Consultation papers went out on October 24 and pressure groups have now urged Gillian Shephard to extend the deadline for consultation.

The National Governors' Council, backed by eight other groups, has voiced concern at the speed with which the consultation exercise is being forced through.

Jack Morrish, vice chairman of the National Governors' Association, wrote to Mrs Shephard urging more time.

His call was backed by the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, the Campaign for State Education, and the Association for County Councils, among others.

He said meaningful consultation could not be completed by the specified date and added: "It has also been suggested to us that many of those consulted find it difficult to reconcile the proposals, and the speed with which they are being processed, with the guarantee of five years stability for education. "

The National Consumer Council's education forum which includes organisations representing parents and pupils also voiced alarm at the lack of time made available to discuss the issue.

John Ward, its acting chairman, has told Lord Henley, Minister of State for Education, that some key organisations had not yet received a copy of the consultation document.

In a letter to the minister, he said: "We are alarmed that these important and far-reaching proposals are to be subject to such a short consultation period. "

The proposals to speed up the process by which church schools become grant-maintained by dispensing with parental ballots or reducing the time limit at various stages were condemned by Anglican and Catholic church leaders earlier this month.

Helen Webster, chair of Parents Opposed to Opting-Out, said the pace at which the DFEE was rushing through theproposal was a clear indication of the Government's fear of open debate.

But Jenny Brown, an executive member of POO, believed an extension to the consultation period would leave the DFEE too little time to draft the Bill needed for the GM fast track for church schools.

She said: "Parliament closes for Christmas on December 15. They must draft a Bill and put it through before then and any extension to the consultation will give them less time to do so.

"We cannot understand why they are rushing this through."

A spokesman for the DFEE acknowledged that the consultation period was far less than recommended.

But he said consultation periods of less than 10 weeks were at the discretion of the Secretary of State provided a letter of explanation was included.

He added: "We sent out a letter explaining we needed the documentation back in time for legislation in the present session."

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