Councils expect to keep strong role in future: Straw poll suggests White Paper has failed to persuade more schools to move away from local authority control

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The Independent Online
LOCAL education authorities where schools are in the vanguard of opting out have already accepted that their role is going to be transformed by the Government's White Paper.

Even they, however, doubt that every school will eventually opt out - as the Government hopes. They expect that thousands of schools will stay with the local authority for as long as they are allowed to choose, and that councils will continue to play an important part in the education service.

The first secondary school to opt out, and the first primary, were in Lincolnshire - which was also one of the first counties to devolve budgetary control to schools in the early Eighties, four years before Local Management of Schools became government policy. Eighteen out of 63 secondary schools are now opted out of Lincolnshire's control; the proportion will probably rise to more than a third by January.

But only five out of the county's 293 primary schools have so far opted out. Jim Speechley, the county's education committee chairman, said: 'I actually see a lot of the small primary schools wanting to stay with the local authority.' He doubts that the Government's plan, of allowing primary schools to opt out as a 'cluster', will make any difference. 'I don't see that working in Lincolnshire. Folk here are pretty independent, and they won't want one governing body for a lot of separate village schools.'

Similar reservations are voiced in Hillingdon, the west London borough which already has eight of its 15 secondary schools opted out. David Yarrow, education chairman, accepts that schools may start opting out like dominoes falling over; but he thinks it more likely that they will do so 'in dribs and drabs' - especially primaries.

Kathleen Higgins, Hillingdon's chief education officer, points out that schools already have substantial autonomy under Local Management. The only attraction of going grant-maintained, she argues, has to be financial - and the White Paper leaves schools uncertain about whether they will be better off if they opt out. 'There is this myth around of a mass surge towards opting out. In fact, each school is looking at it, and asking 'what does it really mean?' '

Lincolnshire and Hillingdon (both Tory-controlled) therefore expect that they will continue to play an active role in running local schools - while accepting that their role is changing.

Ms Higgins, for instance, would like to go further than the Government in devolving functions to schools: she has no desire to run home-to-school transport. A third of the council's central education staff posts have already been shed, and the education committee has been merged with leisure services. But opted out schools are continuing to buy back the council's services - notably its personnel administration, management development, and inspection service. And, Ms Higgins believes, one of the main roles for the council in future will be to act as an advocate for parents and pupils, particularly over special needs.

Arthur Riding, chief education officer in Lincolnshire, also expects the council to have a strong role, but in a different way. Given that it covers a large rural area, with selective schools, Lincolnshire transports one in four pupils from home to school every day - a pounds 6.5m a year task which he believes the council will have to retain. Opted out schools are already buying back a lot of the council's services: all but one use the council's payroll, for example, and some opted out schools in other counties are using Lincolnshire's service.

Both councils have agreed parallel admissions procedures with their opted out schools. In Hillingdon, the education committee has a grant-maintained school representative; in Lincolnshire the opted out schools all take part in the county's grammar school selection process.

Even in areas where the local council is sympathetic to the Government's approach, therefore, there is little prospect of local education authorities disappearing. Instead, the new Funding Agency, opted out schools, and the local authority are going to work out a variety of different local arrangements, which will remain a mixture of council control, central government control, and local school governors' control, for the foreseeable future.

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