The great school experiment is over

After 10 years, grant maintained schools are almost a thing of the past. Some schools face funding losses of up to pounds 500,000 and many teaching and support jobs are in danger. But is it all bad news?
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The Independent Online
BY THE START of the new school year in September the grant-maintained experiment launched by the Conservative government 10 years ago will be over. A total of 1,199 schools in England, 6 per cent of the total, removed themselves from local authority control after parents were balloted, taking 10 per cent of all pupils with them.

What they gained was autonomy; they became employers of their own staff, owners of their own buildings and controllers of their own admissions. They were also guaranteed more generous funding by means of a budget increase designed to cover the services their former local education authorities would have provided.

But what some of them now stand to lose is staff. Their funding is set to drop by as much as 6 or 7 per cent. Some schools face losses of pounds 250,000 and there are reports of large secondary schools losing as much as pounds 500,000 a year.

With teachers' salaries the major cost of any school, jobs are at risk. The grant-maintained (GM) schools believe hundreds of jobs could disappear; a survey is in hand to discover just how many. Some schools predict having to shed eight members of staff.

Under the Labour Government, GM schools have been given three options. They can become foundation schools - retaining much of their autonomy but with "fair funding" channelled through their local education authority, and an obligation to co-operate on admissions. This is the route most have chosen. Or they can become aided schools, the choice of many grant- maintained schools with religious affiliations. Or they can choose by far the least popular option and become community schools - the new status offered to schools that have decided not to opt out.

The new regime is a compromise designed by New Labour to mollify supporters of popular GM schools and Labour voters who bitterly opposed the whole experiment. The aim is a painless transition to a system in which all schools will have greater autonomy, as local authorities are expected to delegate more funds directly to schools but in which GM schools no longer have a financial advantage over their neighbours. It was the apparent financial advantages of GM status that so incensed their political opponents under the last government.

But the switch back to a more unified system looks as if it will be far from painless. As GM schools received their budgets this spring from the local authorities with which they are newly reunited, it became clear that "fair funding" was hitting some of them very hard. In some cases, the local education authorities appear to be channelling the money into extra administrative staff to deal with the new schools, rather than giving it to the schools themselves.

At the same time tensions with local education authorities, some of which were extremely unhappy to lose so many of their schools to the new sector, are beginning to show. The Funding Agency for Schools, the quango that ran the finances of the GM sector, has been monitoring potential problems. These may be acute in areas such as Essex, Kent and Hillingdon, where most secondary schools went GM, and possibly in some of the new unitary authorities, where politicians have ambitions to take firm control of schools now that they have acquired local authority status.

A new Department for Education and Employment unit will act as arbitrator in any disputes.

Bob Lloyd, the chair of the Association of Foundation and Aided Schools, is deeply unhappy with the financial situation. "The transitional arrangements the Government has offered were supposed to be a fall-back to meet hard cases, but it seems to me they will have to be the norm. I am hearing from many schools that are facing reductions in their budgets and are left to meet inflation and teachers' pay rises on their own. Most schools seem to be making reductions in staffing and it looks as if there will be many redundancies. There is enormous concern over finance."

Martyn Morris, the head of a GM grammar school in Lancashire, has been monitoring the transition for the National Association of Head Teachers. "Having been GM, it's true to say that some of us are deeply suspicious that LEAs are going to keep more education money than they should." In GM schools that have spent extra money on teachers, that can only mean redundancies, he says. Local education authority officials agree. As one of them put it, if you move schools back from preferential funding to equal funding, something will have to go.

In some areas, and not only those controlled by Labour, Bob Lloyd says he is aware of concern about the ability of local education authorities to overcome the ill-feeling that accompanied many opt-out battles. "Some LEAs are being constructive, but relationships look as if they will be difficult where there has been an acrimonious break-up." LEAs also have to recognise that Foundation schools are not synonymous with Community schools. There is, he thinks, confusion about roles and status and there is going to be a period of uncertainty as officials and schools work out new relationships and ways of working together.

Peter Shepherd, the head of a former GM school in Bolton that has now reverted to aided status, says that autonomy is not the main problem, as all schools will now have something like the autonomy previously exclusive to GM schools. The issue, he says, is one of fair funding in a system where he does not feel all LEAs have a "fair funding mentality".

"It is all about power and control, and there are some LEAs that are looking to return to the bad old days. Some have not even come into the 20th century while GM schools have moved on a million miles and have learnt to look after themselves." Mr Shepherd is deeply suspicious of the fact that an enormous number of LEA jobs are being advertised.

"Basically, I think some LEAs are out of control. There is new Labour, old Labour and dinosaur Labour and in some areas the dinosaurs are still in control. Unless the Government does something there is no doubt that some LEAs could sabotage this transition."

For their part, the local authorities respond that they will need extra staff to take on the monitoring of extra schools and supervision of the new funding regime. Essex, which says that it lost 500 staff when most of its secondary schools opted out, is expecting to recruit 40 people to help administer the new arrangements.

So what has the GM experiment achieved, apart from some long-standing grudges that will take time to settle? Although many GM schools have proved to be extremely popular with parents, there is no evidence that academically they have had any more success than their non-GM neighbours. More than 100 of the 668 secondary schools that opted out are grammar schools, whose continued existence is now in the hands of local parents who have the right to ballot on their future. And the partially selective admission policies that some GM schools adopted, and which proved to be deeply unpopular with parents in areas such as Hertfordshire and Bromley, may not survive the new adjudicators who will rule on disputes over school places.

But although the GM funding advantages are being phased out, something of the ethos of the new sector may well survive, as all schools come to terms with the greater autonomy they will have in future to make their own decisions. The days when a local education authority expected heads such as Peter Shepherd to consult an official about a new photocopier have gone for ever.

All local education authorities now have to take on a new, leaner role and accept that heads and governors run schools. Political dinosaurs of all parties may find that hard to swallow.

`I AM NOT SURE HOW IT WILL WORK. I THINK THERE IS STILL

SOME ILL-FEELING AMONGST SOME OF THE COUNCILLORS'

Jan Paul is the head of an infants' school in the new unitary authority for Luton

"We left the Bedfordshire local education authority rather reluctantly, simply because we could not resolve some difficulties with a neighbouring school. I was not in favour of the GM experiment, but I have to say that once we had done it I found it wonderful and never regretted it. There was much less stress because I was in control. Going back, I can see the stress of the job building up already.

"We have lost pounds 47,000 out of a budget of about pounds 500,000, at the same time as our numbers have fallen slightly. We are having to cut everywhere - building maintenance, staff training. We'll probably lose our bursar, too. I think we shall lose teachers, but I hope this will be through natural wastage. Getting our class sizes down to 30 by 2002 is going to be really difficult. Without the money we simply shan't have the flexibility we have had.

"I have complained at every level right up to the permanent secretary at the DfEE, but I simply get the answer that this is the formula for the new arrangements and it can't be changed for an individual school. I find it really upsetting.

"And I am not sure how it is going to work with the local authority. I think there is still some ill-feeling amongst some of the councillors. The officers have been understanding. But I am picking up some paternalistic attitudes here and there - people who think they know best, when I know that is not necessarily so."

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