Major orders blueprint for all schools to opt out

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The Independent Online
Sweeping deregulation of grant-maintained schools to strengthen their autonomy and make them more popular is being urgently considered in Whitehall.

In a move designed to achieve John Major's ambition of seeing all schools opt out of local authority control, the Prime Minister has ordered the Downing Street policy unit to co-operate with the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, in finding ways of freeing GM schools from restrictions on their admissions policy and ability to add extra classes.

Ministers had predicted that 3,000 schools would opt out by next April, but so far only 1,080 have done so. In the past year just 50 have voted to do so, compared with 550 in the 1992/93 school year.

Among a hefty series of potential deregulation measures being considered are plans to:

t Give all opted-out schools the freedom to change their admissions policies, for example, to admit pupils from a wider catchment area or to select by academic ability.

t Remove or modify the right of local education authorities to force GM schools to take troublesome pupils including those excluded from other schools, if they do not wish to.

t Ensure the schools have greater freedom to add sixth forms, or nurseries in the case of opted-out primary schools. Local authorities and neighbouring colleges have successfully resisted such expansion in many cases because of the competition it would offer to existing provision.

While there is widespread agreement among ministers and Tory policy-makers that a massive expansion of GM schools is desirable, there have been differences on whether the move should be made compulsory or whether opting out should continue to be subject to parental ballots.

Although that conflict has still not been fully resolved, the balance of argument appears to be moving in favour of continued ballots coupled with a greater effort to make opting out attractive to schools and parents, along with moves to give still greater financial autonomy to schools still in the local authority sector.

The deregulation of GM schools, perhaps before the general election, is seen as part of that process.

Cecil Knight, chairman of the grant-maintained schools' advisory committee to the Government, said many schools had resisted opting out because of uncertainty about the future under Labour and pressures of the national curriculum and because of the freedom they already had under local management, he said. But measures such as those under consideration might induce many more to do so.

"These things might come together to make a strong incentive for schools to opt out. If a Conservative government was re-elected in two years' time there would be a resurgence of interest," he added.