Parents' opt-out vote at risk
A consultation paper, due to be issued soon, will seek opinions on how to fulfil the Prime Minister pledge to expand the grant-maintained sector. While the document is understood to make no reference to enforced opting out it will invite views on options, including a "fast track" for voluntary-aided schools, allowing them to become GM without balloting parents.
This option, revealed in Mr Major's speech to GM heads in Birmingham last month, has been opposed by church leaders, who believe that singling out their schools would be divisive.
Ministers are now thought to be examining the possibility of a "fast track" for all state schools. The Government plans to introduce legislation, following consultation, in the next Parliamentary session.
Robin Squire, the education junior minister, hinted heavily to GM and voluntary-aided schools last week that a fast track for all schools was on the agenda.
"Our minds are not closed to arguments for creating easier access to self-government for other types of schools," he told the Association of Grant-Maintained and Aided Schools.
Any move to scrap parental ballots would be politically risky for a Government which has set great store in promoting parental choice. In his Birmingham speech Mr Major suggested the decision on whether to go GM could be taken solely by governors.
One way of meeting objections about depriving parents of a vote could be to allow them to overturn the decision in a "reverse" ballot.
Such an idea has long been promoted by Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation and a key player in the Government's latest GM drive. He said this week: "I would welcome legislation which would eventually give all schools the opportunity to be self-governing and all children the benefits that come from GM status."
Senior Conservative strategists fear that Anglican bishops and Roman Catholic peers may combine to wreck legislation when it reaches the House of Lords, if it singles out church schools.
The churches in the main have been opposed or neutral to their schools becoming GM and many Catholics bishops have taken the moral stance that opting out takes resources away from other schools. However, at least a fifth of the 1,000-plus GM schools are church schools.
Last week Bishop David Konstant, chair of the Catholic Education Service and Bishop David Young, chair of the Church of England board of education met Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, to discuss the fast track.
The bishops are not commenting on their meeting but a spokeswoman for the Catholic Education Service said: "We regard aided schools as an integral part of the system and we are concerned that any fast track which was offered just to church schools would be divisive.
"We have made the point all along if GM is such a good thing why don't all schools become GM."
Echoing remarks made by the Prime Minister, Mr Squire said he wanted all maintained schools to opt out and added: "We are looking at how this might best be done.
"Giving aided schools easier access to self-government would be an important step, but further initiatives will be required to achieve our overall aim.
"We must also look carefully at the implications of any large-scale changes, which means moving forward at a measured pace."
His comments came just days before a report in Monday's Times which said that ministers were considering a far more radical plan to take control of school funding away from education authorities.
Downing Street has refused to comment.