Education: Gravy train slows down: Judith Judd says opted-out schools will remain a minority, in spite of extra cash on offer

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The Independent Online
A quote by John Patten from last year's Conservative Party conference: 'I predict that by 1996 a clear majority of secondary schools and a small but growing number of primary schools will have opted out. I will eat my hat if what I have predicted does not come true - garnished.'

Quote by Kathryn Riley, professor of educational management at the Roehampton Institute: 'The political impetus has gone out of it. A year ago everyone in a local authority was talking about opting out. Now, unless you ask people, they don't mention it.'

After five years, the Government's favourite education policy is neither a success nor a failure. There are 812 opted-out schools and 165 more in the pipeline, but the numbers lag behind Mr Patten's predictions. The 1992 White Paper on education choice forecast 1,500 grant-maintained primary and secondary schools by April this year. Mr Patten then revised this to 1,000. Latest figures from the independent Local Schools Information show the figure is likely to be between 965 and 977 out of 24,000. The trend remains upward, but the rate is slowing. Last month was the first in which yes and no votes were split 50-50.

More cautious than Mr Patten, who predicts that two- thirds of schools will have opted out by the time of the next election, Sir Bob Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre, suggests that a quarter of secondary schools - about 1,000 - will be grant maintained 'towards the end of next year'. Schools have appeared unenthusiastic, he says, because they are waiting for new regulations that will allow ballots to be completed more quickly.

Researchers, however, believe schools' natural conservatism may prove a barrier to the Government's ambitions. They point out that a policy pursued in the name of parental choice has failed to capture parents' imaginations. Only 20 per cent of ballots are initiated by parents, the rest are started by heads and governors.

Dr David Halpin of Warwick University, who has a four-year grant from the government-funded Economic and Social Research Council to study opted-out schools, says: 'In terms of numbers, the policy is floundering. The Government has tried every inducement to persuade schools, but it hasn't worked. If there was a floodgate to be opened, it would have opened by now.'

Dr Riley, who has just completed a study of management in local authorities for the Local Government Management Board, says: 'It is really slowing down. People in opted-out schools are beginning to see that there are a lot of problems and the money they expect is not always there. For their part, local authorities are sharpening up their act and some are delivering high-quality services to schools.'

So is declining interest in opting out a temporary trend that new legislation will reverse, or a more permanent setback? Money will play a vital role. Despite heads' contention that they choose grant-maintained status to win freedom, Dr Halpin's research shows schools opt out for two main reasons: funds and self-preservation if they are threatened with closure or reorganisation.

Government funding has unashamedly favoured opted- out schools. They have received bigger capital grants than their local-authority neighbours and special grants that have sometimes been worth as much as pounds 200,000 extra. The extra funding arises because schools opting out before April this year received an additional government grant worth 15 per cent of local-authority funding to make up for services that councils would have provided if they had not opted out. However, in some cases council funding for services has fallen by much less than 15 per cent, so the schools are better off.

Yet the Government seems to have failed to convince most schools that the gravy train will run much longer. The Department for Education will say only that 'capital allocations will continue to reflect the commitment to the success of the self-governing sector'.

Opponents of opting out point to signs that the retreat has already begun. In 1993-94, a total of 95 per cent of new opted-out schools received capital grants. In 1994-95 the figure will be just under half. The Government is also reviewing the rules that give the first schools to opt out thousands extra in special grants. The Common Funding Formula, which will provide the long- term rules for opted-out schools' running costs, is not yet settled, though it will be piloted in five local authorities from next April.

Sir Bob says: 'I am confident that no school will lose money by opting out, and that grant- maintained schools will be better off under the new formula.' Martin Rogers, of Local Schools Information, says: 'The Government is going to have to take money from schools which opted out earlier. Parents can spot that that sort of money is not going to last.'

Local government reorganisation may propel some towards grant-maintained status in places where the more congenial counties give way to smaller, less sympathetic units, and the squeeze on local- authority spending may force more schools to opt out for the money. Mr Patten believes new legislation compelling all governing bodies to put opting out on their agenda will boost the numbers. But even some supporters of opting out fear that the law may backfire as resentful governors dismiss it out of hand. Much will depend, suggests Dr Halpin, on the Government's political will: 'Is it fearless enough to keep offering considerable financial advantages to grant- maintained schools?'

Latest indications are that inducements will remain but are likely to decrease, and that there will be no surge of opted- out schools. They will remain a substantial minority, concentrated in a comparatively small number of local authorities. Dr Halpin calls it a mess. The Government calls it diversity.

(Photograph omitted)