Options for opting out

Margaret Thatcher thought it heralded a revolution in schools. It didn't. Judith Judd looks at the prospects

Opting out used to be the Conservatives' favourite policy. Kenneth Baker, the former secretary of state for education, saw it as an escape route for schools from left-wing authorities. Margaret Thatcher was more ambitious. She argued that it would be the educational equivalent of council house sales, and that most schools would eventually leave local authorities and be funded directly by central government.

Both were wrong. Many schools which opted out did so regardless of the political complexion of their local authorities, and the vast majority remained stubbornly under their councils' wings.

The reasons for opting out, which has to be sanctioned by a majority of parents, were varied. Some entrepreneurial heads were attracted by the freedom of running their own affairs, but the attractions diminished as all schools were given new powers to run their budgets under another government policy - local management of schools.

Some schools opted out to avoid closure by the local authority, others to receive the extra cash which the Government used to make the policy more attractive.

Whatever the reason, the numbers were much less impressive than the Government had hoped. Just 1,188 of 24,500 schools have chosen to become grant-maintained.

Last week's Conservative manifesto tacitly acknowledges the policy's limited success. It says no more than that it will "encourage" more schools to become grant-maintained, but it goes on to talk about a new type of school half-way between local authority and grant-maintained, which would control its own admissions and hire its own staff.

That bears at least some resemblance to the Labour Party's policy on opting out. Labour has stopped short of repeating its promise of the last election that it would return all opted-out schools to local authority control. Opting out is a tricky issue for the party because of Tony Blair's decision to send his son to the London Oratory, an opted-out school.

It is offering opted-out schools the opportunity to become "foundation schools". These would be similar to church schools, which control their own admissions and employ their own staff. However, foundation schools would have to agree their admissions policy with the local authority and would have some local authority governors. Any disagreement between a school and its local authority would be sorted out by an independent arbiter, while the final decision would rest with the Secretary of State for Education. Supporters of opting out believe that the schools will in effect be destroyed.

Conservatives argue that opted-out schools give parents more choice, but a recent Audit Commission report suggested that one of the main effects of the policy was to create gridlock. Planning, it argued, was badly needed, instead of a system in which grant-maintained schools handle their own admissions without regard to neighbouring schools.

Conservatives also contend that opted-out schools raise standards. Recent figures from the Office for Standards in Education suggest that these schools outperform their local authority counterparts by a narrow margin, but critics of opting out say that the figures take no account of the fact that opted-out schools have a higher proportion of middle-class pupils than local authority schools do. Previous research has suggested that there is little difference between the two types of schooln

THE FACTS

Total number of grant maintained schools: 1,188 - 663 secondary, 504 primary and 21 special

Total number of pupils: more than 700,000

Total capital grant in the last financial year: pounds 138m

Date first schools opted out: September 1989

Number that have opted out since 1 April last year: 88

IN FAVOUR

With the advantage of hindsight and experience, what seemed a good idea at the time now appears to have been positively inspired. Our school, conceived by the Education Bill of 1988 and born of the resulting Act, has grown into a thriving and popular member of an ambitious family dedicated to improving not only its own circumstances but also those of its neighbours.

The tower blocks of the Druids Heath estate have watched over a remarkable transformation since GM Day 1989: the main classroom block made safe to use, the music room replaced (this time without the fungus), a technology centre developed, and a multi-gym risen above the ashes of the blast furnace. Best of all, a sixth form is into its fourth year and over-subscribed for September, when a further 220 students will be removed from the ranks of the underclass. The main school attracts more than 500 first choices and is open all hours, evenings and weekends.

Examination results have improved beyond belief, with the celebrated five or more A to C grades rising fourfold from 1988. More importantly for us, most pupils achieve results far in excess of their predicted grades at age 11. Our school is extremely selective: only those who live nearest gain entry to it.

When Astroturf replaces the existing mudflat, we should further enhance our position as one of the nation's most successful schools in more than 10 different sports.

None of this would have been remotely achievable without GM status, for it has given us the opportunity to prioritise and the freedom to manage our responsibilities on behalf of the children and people of our local community, to whom congratulations are due regarding their own successful bid to become self-reliant through the medium of tenancy management.

Above all, we have developed a spirit, culture and cause from which we have drawn the strength to translate our vision into practice, as well as the energy to raise money, to press for grants from a variety of organisations and to put in hard cash from our own funds which would once have been part of the bureaucratic element.

We are part of the most significant educational advance since the Renaissance, when merit began to have the edge over birth: we bring you 100 per cent, pure state education.

Roger Perks

The writer is head of Baverstock School in Birmingham.

AGAINST

The governing body of Durham Johnston comprehensive school has spent about four minutes discussing grant maintained status since it was compelled to hold an annual discussion on the subject four years ago. It has taken a similar length of time to report the result of these discussions, as we are obliged to do, to the governors' annual meeting for parents. Only one parent has ever written to the chair of the governing body in support of opting out.

Grant maintained status has never been an issue in the 12 local education authorities of the north east of England, with only one school having voted to opt out.

In the early Nineties Durham Johnston school, like many others, weighed the advantages and disadvantages of opting out. We read the glossy leaflets from the Government and the GM quangos. We studied the financial incentives and considered the increased management freedom. Yet we already enjoyed the management flexibility of LMS and the increasing proportion of the LEA budget being delegated to schools. We reflected on our occasional frustrations with the LEA. We compared these frustrations with those that would inevitably arise from centralised control of the Department for Education and the Funding Agency for Schools.

But, above all, we valued our co-operation with other local schools as part of the education service offered by County Durham. Service and co- operatives are words seldom heard from government ministers in recent years, but they are now beginning to be uttered more often and with greater confidence in schools and LEAs. We look forward to a future based on a culture of co-operation, instead of the culture of competition that has been imposed on us, and which will come to be seen as the passing fashion of the time.

No school is an island and we have no wish to work against the interests of the other members of our local education service. Our governors, parents and teachers have rejected the temptations of GM status because we have looked beyond our school gate and seen that the interests of the local school population would be ill-served by fragmentationn

John Dunford

The writer is head of Durham Johnston comprehensive, Durham.

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