Patten saves local education authorities

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN, the Education Secretary, has torn up his predecessor's plan for a new regional structure to administer school funding, in a move that provides a partial reprieve for local education authorities.

The change of direction will be revealed in a White Paper expected to be published on 27 July. The document will announce proposals to create a single national body to distribute money to schools that have opted out of local authority control. But it will leave local authorities' powers over their own schools largely intact. The details are being denounced in some Whitehall quarters as a muddle.

Kenneth Clarke, the former Education Secretary and now Home Secretary, had planned a series of regional funding councils channelling money to local education authorities as well as opted- out schools.

Eventually these would have taken responsibility for admissions and strategic planning, gaining the power to decide which schools should close when there are too many places. As more schools opted out, the LEAs - already shorn of powers over the curriculum, individual school budgets and inspection - would have withered away.

Mr Clarke's plans, given preliminary approval by Cabinet colleagues last summer, had been attacked by some critics as a creation of 'super LEAs'. Some Conservatives argued that, although Mr Clarke did not intend to allow elections to the regional councils, they would inevitably be staffed by 're-treads' from the local education establishment.

Mr Patten's White Paper will contain at least a hint that financial advantages now enjoyed by opted-out schools (called grant- maintained schools) will be reduced. At present they receive 15 per cent more for capital spending when they first opt out.

Precise arrangements will be determined in public spending negotiations but the Treasury says spending must be reduced.

Since the policy began in 1988, 394 schools have become grant- maintained, with 113 ballots going against opting out.

The LEAs' partial reprieve includes keeping responsibility for three functions that involve most friction with parents. They will control admissions, dealing with angry parents who cannot get their children into their first choice of school. They will also make arrangements for travel and for special educational needs. The latter involves a complicated procedure whereby a 'statement' of problems and proposed action is drawn up and agreed with parents for each individual child.

The White Paper includes new powers, promised by the Prime Minister, to enable ministers to intervene when inspectors say inner city schools are underperforming.