Patten says opt-outs will become irreversible

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JOHN PATTEN, Secretary of State for Education, yesterday predicted that parents would vote for the 1,000th grant-maintained school in 1993, making the Government's key education policy irreversible.

Opponents seized on his statement as a 'huge climbdown' from his previous target of having 1,500 grant-maintained schools in operation by April 1994.

Win Griffiths, Labour schools spokesman, said yesterday 'A thousand yes votes before the end of December means no more than 1,000 grant maintained schools achieved by 1 April 1994. Mr Patten has slashed his own estimate by a third.'

Mr Patten, who snubbed local authority members and officers by cancelling a speech at this week's North of England Education Conference, said the number of parental ballots on opting out of local authority control had accelerated since the general election, with eight out of 10 schools voting 'yes'.

'The 1,000th school, I believe, will remove any hopes opponents of grant-maintained schools may have had of returning the schools to local authority control,' he said in a new year message.

'Parents will have voted with their feet in a way that neither politicians nor bureaucrats can question.' He said that the popularity of opt-out schools with parents was undeniable, with research showing nine out of 10 pupil rolls increasing after the change.

Mr Patten praised teachers' professionalism in implementing recent reforms and promised them a long period of consolidation with an end to legislation on schools. Ministers had responded to what teachers had to say about how technology was taught in schools, Mr Patten said. He has been criticised by teachers' organisation for refusing to meet them.

A new independent inspection regime under the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted), which replaces HM Inspectorate, would ensure a rigorous inspection of each school every four years. Where a school was clearly shown to be failing a team of 'dedicated and experienced people' would get the school back on its feet, he said.

His message coincided with a local authority analysis which researchers said showed there was no sign of the necessary opting out breakthrough to get near ministers' targets.

Local Schools Information said parents at 21 out of 78 schools voted against grant-maintained status last month amid doubts about the long-term future of extra cash for opt-out schools.

To reach its 1,500 opt-out school target next year, an average of 466 schools would need to ballot each term, compared with 262 last term. 'The Government has used up its prime candidates and all the schools most likely to opt out have done so,' it said.