Head teachers still sceptical over opting out: 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
LAST WEEK'S education White Paper has failed to tilt more schools in favour of opting out, with most head teachers remaining sceptical about the benefits.

A survey by the Independent of 35 head teachers found nearly all voicing concern about the lack of detail in the White Paper. Many said that, although the Government's policy statement runs to 30,000 words, it still leaves a host of unanswered questions.

A 'wait and see' attitude to opting out therefore continues to prevail and the prospect of a tidal rush away from local authority control seems remote.

Although opting out requires a parental ballot decision, head teachers' attitudes are known to be a critical factor in deciding whether governors put forward an opt-out proposal. The Independent survey suggests that many are reluctant to abandon good local authority relations for grant-maintained status.

Before the general election, the proponents of opting out predicted that up to 2,000 schools were waiting for a Conservative victory before pressing ahead with a ballot. But there is little evidence of such a substantial increase over the 300 schools which have so far opted out.

At first, many schools said they would wait for the White Paper; now heads are saying they will delay until November, when the Education Bill is presented to Parliament, or even longer. Peter Downes, head teacher of Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon, said: 'I don't think the White Paper has taken us any further forward. There are no specifications of how the funding is going to work out in detail. What do they mean by 'common funding formula'? What do they mean by 'National Spending Assessments' and what will happen if a local education authority exceeds it?'

John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive, Durham, is worried about fragmentation of the system: 'I am anxious that we should have a good state- school system which might work within local authority control, or through a funding agency. It is difficult to see how we can have a coherent education system with both structures operating.'

Most head teachers said that their own and their governors' political attitudes would not be a factor: the main factor would be whether or not the school stood to gain from opting out or not. 'There are only two issues: funding and management, and in the final analysis what is in the best interests of the pupils,' said Tom Weston, head of Shavington Primary School, Crewe.

'There is one advantage of opting out at the present moment and that is money,' said Kathryn Brooke, head teacher of Garth Hill School, Bracknell. However, as many heads pointed out, the White Paper does not help schools work out whether they will be better off staying with their local authority, or going grant-maintained.

First Intake School in Doncaster made three senior staff redundant last year because of financial constraints. Liz Paver, head teacher, said: 'If we consider opting out it will be more to do with the underfunding of our school than with anything else.'

Deacons Queens Gardens School, Peterborough, receives twice as many applications as it has places available. Faced with the difficult task of balancing his budget, head teacher Steve Taylor has chosen to opt out rather than make staff redundant. 'I need to expand the school, and I think that I can expand faster by opting out. I wish it hadn't come to this. It is the only way that we can maintain standards,' he said.

Even heads who are considering opting out stress close working relationships with their local education authorities, saying that they would be reluctant to lose support services. Stuart Haves, head of Newport Junior School, Shropshire, sees clear disadvantages in losing the expertise of the local authority. 'Things like getting adequate insurance and having the legal facilities of the local authority are useful. I also have some concern about the loss of the advisory service.'

Margaret Jones, chair of governors at Battersea Technology College, London, sees the balance of power shifting to schools: 'Governors are bound to use the threat of opting out as a bargaining counter with their local authorities. They will say 'if you don't give us what we want then we will leave'. Local authorities are holding on to old attitudes, and have to change some of their ways.'

Some local authorities have been quick to respond to such demands. In Leeds, for example, schools already have greater responsibility for their finances and management. By November, the local authority will announce its plans for delegating 100 per cent of school finances. 'I cannot imagine that people would see any advantages in opting out, after that,' said Michael Franklin, head teacher of Prince's Grammar School, Leeds.

Mr Dunford said that, as local authorities delegate more management control to schools, there might be less of an incentive to opt out altogether. Other heads, however, recognise that the complete autonomy of grant-maintained status is a real attraction, particularly for schools which have already had long experience of devolved budgetary management.

At present there is a financial advantage in opting out, because schools receive an extra 15 per cent to compensate for the loss of their council's administrative support, in addition to better capital funding. But the White Paper has left most heads feeling very doubtful about whether that financial incentive will persist. 'Some schools here are under threat of closure. In those circumstances parents are going to say, 'If there is another way, we are going to go that way',' said Mrs Paver, head teacher in Doncaster. Some heads want to preserve a collective local approach, but may have to accept that the new funding structure will create extra pressure to opt out. Stephen Szemerenyi, head of Finchley Catholic High School in London, believes that opting out is 'totally immoral', but he said: 'The long and the short of it is that if one other school goes then we will have to go because it will no longer be financially viable to stay with the local authority.'

Most heads interviewed who do not favour opting-out believe they may need to review their position in the six to nine months. But for the time being, some are digging in: 'I am a headmaster. I don't want to be a chief executive,' said Hugh Kerr, head of Greenock High School, Strathclyde.

Others argue that the debate will reopen after the summer holidays: 'If Mr Patten wished to have no reaction whatsoever, he published the White Paper at the right time,' said Peter Aldridge, head teacher of Lady Smith First School, Exeter. 'It is not an unknown practice for the department to publish papers in the school holiday and then expect an immediate response. I am sure it was quite deliberate.'

Interviews were carried out by Sanjay Singhal and Tessa Walsh.

(Photograph omitted)