Opted-out schools reach 1,000 milestone: Government well short of targets

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MINISTERS gave the go- ahead to Britain's 1,000th opted-out school yesterday, amid warnings that plans for most secondaries to become self-governing are a long way behind schedule.

John Patten, the former Secretary of State for Education, promised to eat his hat, 'garnished', if a clear majority of the 4,000 secondary schools in England and Wales did not opt out before the next election. He also predicted that the 1,000th secondary would opt out by Easter this year.

Just 594 secondary schools have now left local authority control, and a further 34 are planning to do so. Last term parents at six secondary schools voted to opt out, while those at a further 22 voted against.

Robin Squire, the schools minister, said the decision to make Wicklewood County Primary School near Wymondham in Norfolk, the 1,000th opted-out school was a milestone. There were now 930 self-governing schools, including primaries, and a further 70 had received approval to become self-governing, he said. In addition, a further 60 schools had voted to opt out and were awaiting ministerial approval. Mr Squire denied that the policy was failing.

'Far from running out of steam the self-governing sector has gone from strength to strength. Over 580,000 pupils are now being educated in self-governing schools - 18 per cent of secondary school pupils and 2 per cent of state-educated primary school pupils,' he said.

Opponents of opting out said that it was now almost impossible for the Government to meet its targets. With the Labour Party committed to reversing the policy if it won the next election it was unlikely that many more schools would bother to do so, they said.

A recent parliamentary written answer revealed that more parents voted against opting out than in favour in ballots held last year. Of more than 100,000 who were asked to decide 36,300 voted against and 34,300 voted in favour, while 37,100 did not vote.

The 1993 Education Act obliged all school governing bodies to consider opting out during each school year, but this has done little to increase the numbers. Some campaigners have even suggested that it created resentment and led to even fewer deciding to hold a ballot.

Simon Gardner, spokesman for Parents Opposed to Opting Out, said that if there was a mechanism by which schools could go back to local authority control the number of grant-maintained schools would drop.