Education: The annual bout of out or in: Diana Hinds seeks out the views of governors

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The Independent Online
At the end of last term the governors of Grey Coat Hospital, a voluntary- aided secondary school for girls in Westminster, voted narrowly against balloting its parents on opting out. It was a heated contest, occupying much of the governing body's time. But because of the Government's determination to drive its opt-out policy forward, new legislation requires the governors to repeat the whole process again in a year's time.

'There is political pressure on us to opt out: it's perfectly possible to resist this pressure, but it's a rather laborious process,' said Canon Anthony Harvey, sub-dean of Westminster Abbey and a governor of the school. 'To say that the decision has to be reviewed every year is very unsatisfactory. We need to be able to make long-term plans.'

Sir Derek Pattinson, former secretary of the General Synod and a school governor, agrees that a year is 'a bit too soon' but, as a supporter of opting out, is in favour of the legal requirement. 'There was some reluctance to discuss opting out at all; I'm glad of a situation in which I don't have to say to my colleagues, 'Please can we discuss it again?'.'

The basic arguments rehearsed at Grey Coat Hospital have been heard at schools up and down the country. Proponents, such as Sir Derek, are attracted by the idea of greater freedom: 100 per cent control of the school budget, compared with 85 per cent at present. Critics, such as Canon Harvey, maintain that opting out impairs local democracy and accountability, and reduces the local authority services available for non- opted-out schools.

But at Grey Coat Hospital there are other, more pragmatic, considerations, such as whether it is in the school's interest to remain under Westminster City Council's control. Experiencing difficulties as a split-site school, Grey Coat has long been petitioning the council for extra funds - without success.

Sir Derek believes the new council lacks the sophistication and experience of longer-established county authorities. The governing body, says Canon Harvey, will be 'looking very carefully' at

its performance over the next year.

So far, no Westminster school has become grant maintained, but Sir Derek believes the desire 'not to be left behind' could be another strong argument in favour of opting out.

Maria Mudie, a parent governor, argues that the school would definitely have been better off if it had opted out last year - to the tune of pounds 340,000, according to calculations by a governors' working party. She said the school had already had to make five members of staff redundant, and needed more money if increases in class size - from an average of 25 at present - were to be avoided. 'We are made to feel greedy if we demand more money, as if we are taking money away from other schools. But my first duty is to this school.'

Jane Cooper, a teacher and school governor, was less confident about the financial advantages of opting out, and voted against. 'I wanted the best for the children. But it's not clear that we would be better off. Nothing is clear. The Government must make it clear.'

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