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Tory godfather opts back in

Sir Bob Balchin, creator of the grant-maintained sector, returns to thefight for schools' autonomy, reports Alison Brace.

Ten years ago you could not read a story about the Conservative government's policy encouraging schools to opt out of local-authority control without stumbling across Bob Balchin's name.

At the height of the opt-out revolution, this so-called godfather of the grant-maintained movement had one-fifth of secondary schools and 600 primary schools under his wing.

Now, after a period out of the limelight, the former chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation is re-emerging as a central player in the Tories' education strategy. The debonair 63-year-old is back cutting a dash in the heartland of Tory policy.

This summer he was made chairman of a Conservative commission looking into special-needs provision. At the same time he is heading an inquiry analysing the role of local education authorities if all schools were made self-governing under a Tory government.

"I believe that if you give teachers all the reins, including control of finances, then the quality of education will go up," said Sir Bob, who was knighted for services to education in 1993.

In 1997, with Labour's election victory, Sir Bob's empire abruptly fell apart - his dream of turning every state school into a self-governing, independent organisation in tatters.

But this professional setback was overshadowed by a double personal tragedy. His 21-year-old son Alex died when he fell from a central London building during a demonstration. A few weeks later, Alex's twin, Tom, was left paralysed after suffering a brain haemorrhage.

"I gave everything up to concentrate on getting Tom better and so I wasn't able to take part in the post-election debate," said Sir Bob. "Alex's death was devastating for us. To nearly lose Tom as well would have felt like the end."

Tom has now fully recovered, and earlier this month, Sir Robert presented his son with a PhD in education and design at Goldsmiths college in London, where Sir Bob - wearing one of his many and decorous other hats - is deputy chairman of the council.

Sir Bob, an ex-grammar school boy, took a masters degree in education at Hull university after his initial English degree at London university. He taught in the state and private sectors in the 1960s before buying a run-down preparatory school in Kent with his wife, Jenny. He has since sold the school.

He is as critical of the Conservatives' nationalising the curriculum in the 1980s as he is of Labour's attempts to nationalise teaching methods.

"I think teaching decisions should be left to the professionalism of teachers," he said.

Sir Bob has acted as a senior adviser to four successive education secretaries and two Tory opposition leaders. Throughout he has remained true to the idea he first mooted in a paper for Sir Keith Joseph in the late 1980s called "Give schools their own cheque book".

David Ruffley, who as Kenneth Clarke's special adviser in the Education Department and the Treasury, has known Sir Bob since the early 1990s, says many MPs believe he should have a seat in the House of Lords - and serve as a minister under a Tory regime.

"As a one-man band he took the concept of GM from nowhere to mainstream thinking. Eight years into the Blairite programme, Bob's ideas are alive and well," said Mr Ruffley, now MP for Bury St Edmunds.

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