Patten hopes all schools opt out

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The Independent Online
THE BIGGEST changes in schools' organisation and funding for nearly 50 years were announced by the Government yesterday, in a White Paper that aims to encourage all schools to opt out of local authority control.

The White Paper proposes a new national body to oversee schools that opt out and new powers for the Secretary of State for Education. It foresees a diminishing role for local authorities. The advisory bodies overseeing the national curriculum and examinations would be amalgamated.

Critics immediately questioned ministers' predictions that three-quarters of secondary schools would opt out by the next election. They pointed to hints in the document that the money available for opt-out schools would be reduced. So far only 280 of 23,000 schools in England and Wales have become grant-maintained.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who wrote some chapters of the paper, said: 'Our proposals are radical, sensible and in tune with what parents want. This is above all a commonsense White Paper. Its central focus is on choice and diversity.'

New education associations, including retired heads, will be sent in to failing schools. Mr Patten said he 'had a little list' of bad schools and was determined to rescue their pupils.

The Secretary of State will acquire powers to replace recalcitrant governors of opt-out schools, to intervene in disputes over admissions, and to reduce the number of surplus places in both grant-maintained and local authority schools, if necessary through a public inquiry.

The White Paper does not spell out whether the financial incentives for schools to opt out will continue, but it suggests they will need less than the present pounds 60,000 grant to help them.

Capital grants will be determined in the annual public spending round. So the Treasury's attitude to grant-maintained schools will not be clear until public spending figures are announced in the autumn. From 1994 grant-maintained schools' budgets will be determined by a common funding formula based on the amount the Government says the local authority can spend (the standard spending assessment).

Martin Rogers, of the local authority-funded Local Schools Information Service, said if a council spent more than its standard spending assessment, its schools would be better off than grant-maintained schools in its area.

Bob Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, said: 'Opting out will be quicker, easier and even more attractive and certainly less intimidating than in many areas.'

Chris Adamson, chairman of the Association of London Authorities' education committee, believed there would be a role for local authorities for a long time. Under the White Paper, a local education authority has to share responsibility with the new national funding agency when 10 per cent of its schools have opted out, and loses all funding control when the figure reaches 75 per cent.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: 'Wherever Mr Patten fears the voice of democracy may be heard he seeks to silence it. In doing so he can no longer blame education authorities for the problems.'

Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, said: 'All the Government is offering is yet more chopping and changing and increased centralisation.'

MAIN POINTS

A new national body to distribute funds to opted-out schools.

Education associations, appointed by ministers, to take over failing schools.

A single organisation to run both the national curriculum and examinations.

Schools encouraged to specialise in subjects such as technology, art or languages.

Clusters of small primary schools to be able to opt out together.

Ministers predict more than 4,000 schools will opt out by April 1995, with opting-out process made easier.

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