Dark days of the fight;Briefing;Goodbye to GM

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
A headteacher's decision to back a 'yes' vote in his school's opt-out ballot led to threats and intimidation. Chris Macgowan and Bibi Berki report

Heads of the first wave of schools to go grant-maintained put their careers on the line, pitting themselves against colleagues and their former employees. But few could have envisaged the scale of the problems to come.

John Wallace, headteacher of Wold Newton primary, in Yorkshire, claims he was threatened with the sack during the campaign to make his school grant-maintained. He had sent out leaflets to parents explaining the advantage of opting out. "I was invited down to the education office and told I was throwing myself wide open to dismissal if I sent out any more. I was warned I would be sacked well before my school became GM," he said.

The threats made him more determined, despite seeing a fellow campaigner being spat at during an opting-out meeting.

"It was very politicised," he said. "GM was associated with Margaret Thatcher but when you went to meetings you saw the same group of Socialist Workers' party people in their leather jackets, with the same list of questions."

Eight years on, Mr Wallace feels he has been vindicated with pound;500,000 spent on his school's buildings.

Kevin McAleese, head of Harrogate grammar, still feels scarred by his experience. Governors of the school - a comprehensive despite its name - voted by 11 to seven to seek approval from parents to opt out in February 1996. It never did. "The timing of the school's attempt was misguided," said Mr McAleese. "It was at the tail-end of an unpopular government and the glory days of opting-out had passed."

Within 24 hours of the vote, the anti-GM governors had contacted the media in an attempt to block the process, he said.

Mr McAleese said he had anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night and added: "I did not realise that by leading the campaign, I would be put in the line of fire and there were calls for my resignation."

He eventually got the buildings he needed from the LEA, but not without intense "unpleasantness and antagonism". Mr McAleese came out of this dark period with a CBE - awarded by Tony Blair's government.

For Roy Ludlow, his job rested on the outcome of a High Court case. He spent his second day as head of Beechen Cliff school in Bath in the High Court.

The now defunct Avon County Council challenged the school's status and won a judicial review, questioning education secretary John MacGregor's decision.

"It wasn't the best way to start. It put me under great pressure." Beechen Cliff school voted to opt out in 1990. But Avon argued the decision cut across the authority's reorganisation plans. It wanted to close the school and open a sixth- form college on the site. It sought the review and Mr Ludlow found his appointment declared null and void. Mr MacGregor stuck to his decision and eventually the High Court found in the school's favour.

"It was worth the risk," said Mr Ludlow.


But it was not all bad news for those who believed in opting out - many of the movement's loyalists won reward in the shape of knighthoods, CBEs and OBEs.

Among the recipients were Sir Robert Balchin chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools' Foundation, who was awarded a knighthood.

Roger Perks head of Baverstock school, Birmingham.

Brian Sherratt former head of Great Barr school, Birmingham.

Brother Francis Patterson head of St Francis Xavier College, Liverpool and chairman of the Association of Heads of Catholic Schools.

Cecil Knighthead of Small Heath school, Birmingham and a former chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee.

Carol Evans head of Priory primary school, Slough.

Chris Hampsonhead of St James' Church of England school, Bolton.

John McIntosh head of the London Oratory, which Tony Blair's sons attend.

Pauline Latham chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee.

George Phipson retired head of West Hatch high, Chigwell, Essex and former chairman of the Association of Heads of Grant-Maintained Schools.

Anne Snelling former head of controversy-dogged Stratford school in east London.

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