LONDON — A BRITISH government attempt to give parents more say in the education of their children has led to a bitter power struggle with racial overtones at a school in a deprived area of London's East End.
The dispute is between Anne Snelling, head teacher of Stratford School in the borough of Newham, and a group of Asian-born school governors.
Despite personal interventions by Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke, the two sides continue to clash.
The governors argue that Mrs. Snelling's approach to teaching is not in the best interests of the school, in which 75 percent of the pupils are nonwhite.
Board chairman Ghulam Shaida points out that only five of Stratford's 45 teachers are nonwhite.
Snelling has brought a libel action and sought a High Court injunction against the Asian governors, one of whom has brought a case against Snelling for alleged physical assault. There have been several nationally publicized shouting matches at school meetings.
When Mr. Clarke appointed two education experts last month to be "neutral" members of the governing board with the task of bringing peace to the school, an Asian governor called him a "colonialist." Problems with the policy
Education Department sources concede that the troubles at Stratford have revealed weaknesses in the Major government's policy of switching state-financed schools from local authority to parental control.
The policy arises from the 1988 Education Reform Act, which for the first time allowed parents with children at a state-financed school the right to vote on opting out of local authority control.
Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that many local school authorities had a left-wing bias and a poor record of running schools. So far about 150 of Britain's 27,000 schools have opted for what is officially called "grant-maintained status."
The government wants more schools to take the same administrative road.
Clarke has been deeply reluctant to intervene at Stratford; he is aware of the criticism the Major government has made against Labour Party-controlled councils that administer schools in their areas. Stratford's shift
When Stratford parents voted on opting out 18 months ago, enrollment was down to 180 pupils. The school itself was under threat of closure.
The board of governors began assuming many of the responsibilities hitherto exercised by the local authority. In a few months the enrollment had risen to almost 600.
But Martin Rogers, a school administration specialist who has taken a close interest in the Stratford case, says this also was when "things began to go disastrously wrong."
Mr. Shaida, who came to Britain from Pakistan in 1967, became chairman of the 17 governors chosen to run the school. According to Hazel Palmer, another governor, Shaida and about six Asian members of the ruling board became "over-mighty."
The chairman had strong support from Harbhajan Singh, who had helped to lead the Stratford opt-out campaign and, as a member of the teaching staff, had hoped to become the school's head teacher.
As a governor-teacher, says Mrs. Palmer, Mr. Singh began demanding that Snelling, his superior, alter the curriculum to "reflect the ethnic balance of the school."
To reinforce their demands, Shaida and some of the other governors began entering classrooms and criticizing teachers and their methods. It was at this point that the terms "racist" and "fascist" were first hurled at Snelling. Punches were exchanged at parent-teacher association meetings.
Snelling received the backing of the National Association of Head Teachers in a libel action against one of the governors who accused her of being a racist.
Throughout the dispute, Snelling has refused to make any public criticisms of the Asian governors.
Clarke appointed two new governors last month - Professor Eric Bolton, a former chief inspector of schools, and Daphne Gould, a former head teacher from a neighboring borough with large numbers of non-white families.
Mrs. Gould says some of the governors joined the board with good intentions, but many "fail to understand what being a school governor is all about" and are "unaware of the responsibilities that come with power."
An Indian-born parent with two children at the school but who asked not to be named, said she sympathized with Shaida and Singh in their wish to meet the educational needs of nonwhite children.
But some of the governors, she said, had "allowed personal and racial feelings to cloud their judgment."
Ladi Joseph, a Nigerian-born governor, described himself as "100 percent for Snelling. She is not racist and is well qualified for the job." Race in the equation
Shaida denies allegations that he wants to turn Stratford into a Muslim school. He points out that 15 percent of the pupils are Hindu and 25 percent Sikh.
"It is a multicultural school," Shaida says. He has the support, however, of the London Collective of Black Governors whose Muslim chairman, Muhammed Haque, has involved himself in the dispute and threatened to catalog examples of Snelling's alleged racism.
There have been reports that Clarke's officials have urged him to close the school down, lest the Stratford scandal discredit the government's opting-out policy. Mr. Rogers says the dispute has highlighted a basic flaw in the policy.
Clarke "can wag his finger or take drastic action, but nothing much in between," he says. Local education authorities had a much wider range of possible measures.
On March 6, Clarke gave the governors two weeks to produce evidence that Stratford school was being run properly. The department yesterday said Clarke had received a reply and was studying it.