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JUDGE SURPRISED SHEPHARD DIDN'T ACT ON MISLEADING OPT-OUT VOTE

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case no: CO/1362/96 ...
case no: CO/1362/96

Staffordshire CC today failed in a last-ditch high court bid to force a fresh parents' ballot on whether a Wombourne primary school should be allowed to opt out of its control.

Mr Justice Laws said the financial information put out to parents by the governors of St Benedict Bishop School before the crucial poll had given a 'misleading' impression of the benefits of the school assuming independent grant maintained status.

It was 'surprising' that education secretary Gillian Shephard had not ordered a fresh ballot, but her decision was not 'so outrageous in its defiance of logic' to enable him to intervene.

'Many people might consider that the secretary of state's decision surprising given what I have called the chasm between the two competing sets of financial information and her own finding that the governors' set was materially misleading,' said the judge.

But he added: 'The judgement upon the subject matter in question is for the minister and not for the court. It is elementary that the court does not usurp parliament's delegate in respect of a matter which that delegate is given the task of deciding.'

The ballot amongst the Church of England school's 313 parents was held on November 14 last year. Of the 244 who voted, a majority of 160 voted in favour of grant maintained status.

Five days before the poll the governors had distributed information to parents on the alleged financial benefits of opting out, suggesting that there would be more cash available to spend on teachers, school books and equipment under the new regime.

The judge said the governors' information projected that in the first year of grant maintained status the school's income could increase by as much as £77,448.

By contrast, the county council said that first year-income would increase by just £6,700, and could actually decline in later years.

The county council complained to Mrs Shephard, asking her to declare the ballot a nullity, but she refused despite finding that the information put out by the Governors had been 'materially misleading'.

Mr Justice Laws dismissed the council's judicial review challenge, saying: 'I note there is no evidence here that any of the parents consider they were misled'.

The county council was ordered to pay the action's legal costs, and it is now for Mrs Shephard to make a final decision on whether the school meets the various criteria necessary to attain grant maintained status.

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