Bad timing holds schools in deep freeze

Applications for state funding and change of status have been left in limbo since the election was announced, writes Lucy Ward. And if Labour wins, what then?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
They are the ones that could have been - the unlucky education plans and projects that fell foul of the election. Dozens of schools on the verge of sealing government agreements to expand, change status or become state-funded have seen their hopes dashed because of the Civil Service freeze on processing controversial decisions during the election campaign. Because their applications were still in the education secretary's in-tray when the election was called, they can expect no progress until next month at the earliest.

And if Labour wins today, heads, teachers and thousands of pupils and parents may face a prolonged wait to learn whether their cherished schemes will survive. Decisions suspended until after the election also include the appointment to the chair of one of the country's key education quangos, the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, a post formerly held by Sir Ron Dearing.

A recommendation setting forward the name of Sir William Stubbs, rector of the London Institute, lay on the desk of Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, on the Friday before John Major announced the election date on Monday, 17 March. He fell victim to the great decisions-freeze and must await the decision of an incoming secretary of state.

Among the schools worst affected by the election inaction are those in the independent sector - mainly run by religious groups - hoping to "opt in" to the state system and become grant-maintained.

Several have protested that the freeze has left parents who anticipated a switch to public funding this term struggling to pay unexpected fees.

Among nine such schools pipped at the post by Mr Major's announcement is Virgo Fidelis Convent School in Croydon. The 149-year-old school, founded by a French order of nuns to educate children from the streets and workhouses, still serves many pupils from low-income families who scrape together the pounds 1,445-a-term fees with the help of charitable trusts and contributions from the sisters' wages.

Sister Bernadette, headmistress, was told of the delay just five days before the school's provisional date for a switch to the state sector on 1 April.

She said: "For us this is a devastating result. Our parents are the type who really struggle to find the fees, which was the whole point of opting in, and now I've been forced to send out bills for this term."

Mount St Mary's Convent School in Exeter is another Catholic girls' school caught out by the election timetable. The school is due to close in the summer, and has complained bitterly of government sluggishness in failing to process its bid to re-open within the state sector in September.

Two Muslim schools, three Jewish schools, another convent and a secondary school run by Seventh Day Adventists have also failed to beat the election clock.

Sister Bernadette is typical in pleading with a prospective Labour government for a swift resolution of the applications, amid fears that legislation to create the party's proposed new school framework could hold up progress for as much as a year.

Labour would abolish grant-maintained status, but would create a new foundation status offering schools some of the same freedoms though removing funding advantages. David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, has pledged to consider each undecided case on its merits under existing legislation while the party's manifesto proposals are put into action.

The same pledge applies to the 49 state schools hoping to switch to grant- maintained status. Of those, 31 have moved far down the line with fully published proposals for change, while 10 more have still to squeeze in parental ballots before 1 May.

Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, called on Mr Blunkett to abide by parents' wishes and grant GM status - however temporary - to schools that wanted it.

"The legislation can't be changed quickly and it is not proper to leave these schools in limbo, because then they can make no progress at all," she said.

Schools on the verge of securing GM status had been left high and dry, unsure of their future budgets and unable to plan staffing adequately, she said.

Another 35 schools which already have GM status but hope to change their character, mainly by opening nurseries or sixth forms, will also have to wait for a decision.

The only issue rescued from the in-tray during the campaign concerned government agreements with schools entering the assisted places scheme - the Tory initiative offering private school places to children from low-income families. Signing of the agreements was initially suspended until polling day but was later set back in motion after schools and parents complained.

Every other decision, however, has remained firmly pending during the big campaign freeze. Thousands of parents, teachers and pupils will greet the polls this morning with relief as the start of the long-awaited thawn

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