Parents, pupils and staff have spoken of their horror after the head of an independent school involved in a bitter row over its planned merger with a nearby rival was attacked with bleach at his home last week.
The assault took place hours after the proposed tie-up - between Arnold School in Blackpool and King Edward VII and Queen Mary School (KEQMS) in Lytham St Annes - was approved by the Charity Commission following an investigation triggered by parental opposition. The decision means the merger will go ahead next September.
But there is speculation that last week's attack on Arnold School head Jim Keefe (pictured, left) could be linked to the controversial plans.
A Lancashire police spokesman confirmed that Mr Keefe had been attacked at his Blackpool home at 7am in the morning. It is understood a bleach-like substance was thrown in his face as he answered a knock on his door. The attacker, a description of whom has not been released, then ran off. The spokesman confirmed: "The merger between the two schools is one of our major lines of inquiry."
The new school will be run by the United Church Schools Trust (UCST), which already runs Arnold, and will be relocated to the KEQMS site in Lytham St Annes. In a bizarre twist, UCST chairman Lord Carey had previously accused opponents of its plans of "personal attacks" by those who are "intent on wrecking the merger".
An Arnold School spokesman said Mr Keefe had resumed work after being released from hospital on the day of the incident. "He could have been seriously injured, possibly blinded," added the police spokesman. "We are appealing to anyone with information to come forward."
The attack was immediately condemned by parents at KEQMS, who have fought a three-month campaign to stop the move after it was first announced at the beginning of September.
"We were horrified. Of all the people we have come across in this awful battle, Mr Keefe has been one of the nicest," KEQMS parent Shirley Morgan said. A KEQMS teacher, who asked not be named, said staff were shocked. "No one has any idea who the perpetrator was. It has certainly stirred things even further."
Mr Keefe is due to be the new head of the enlarged school, set to be called AKS, having pipped KEQMS head Robert Karling to the post. But merger opponents are refusing to cave in and plan to appeal the Charity Commission's decision.
Ray Allis, chairman of the No To The Takeover campaign, who described the attack on Mr Keefe as "deplorable", said it would appeal the decision by the beginning of next week.
"What we've asked for from the Charity Commission is the release of the documents they considered as part of the decision-making process."
Meanwhile, the first open day of the new AKS school is due to be held at the KEQMS site tomorrow.