Patten's plan for school opt-outs 'fatally flawed'

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The Independent Online
HEAD TEACHERS, county councils and education pressure groups are agreed that the Government's plan for schools to opt out piecemeal will lead to waste and confusion.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, hoped that his education White Paper would set the framework for schools over the next quarter century. But the responses to Choice and Diversity say that the Cabinet minister has failed to answer some of the most challenging problems posed by Conservative policy.

In its response, published today, the National Association of Head Teachers attacks the White Paper's founding principle. It says the Government's aim of an 'internal market' for schools is 'fatally flawed' because 'it fails to appreciate that choice is not available for all parents'.

The White Paper envisages setting up a centrally-run Funding Agency for opted-out schools, which would share responsibility with local councils. The Association of County Councils, along with the head teachers' union, believes a system which makes two separate authorities responsible for providing school places will be 'a recipe for costly duplication'.

The chairmen of county council education committees, who run most schools at present, believe that the Government should require opted-out and local authority schools to adopt common admissions systems, enabling parents to be sure of securing a place for their child in plenty of time. The head teachers agree.

Nearly every respondent says that the Government should allow the local education authorities to go on selling their services to opted-out schools, instead of forcing schools to buy from private suppliers.

A parliamentary Bill - one of the largest drafted - is ready for presentation to Parliament in November. It will seek to enact the main proposals made in the White Paper at the end of July. The tight schedule has been greeted by unanimous protest.

The Advisory Centre for Education - an independent charity which offers guidance to parents - comments caustically on the White Paper's failure to spell out how schools will be funded as increasing numbers opt out: 'Far from being the last piece of legislation for the next 25 years, the new Bill will almost certainly be followed by numerous others needed to straighten out the chaos.'

It says that the White Paper's proposals will 'nationalise' the schools system. 'With the government in control, it will be the government that is blamed . . . Parents are not going to be too happy to find there is no one to complain to apart from Lord So-and-so at the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, or Lady Gracious in the Funding Agency,' the centre warns. 'As nationalisation moves apace, MPs and civil servants will find their time increasingly taken up by frustrated parents waving their Parent's Charters at them.'

Local Schools Information - a local authority-funded organisation which questions opting out - warns that simplified opt-out procedures may 'increase the present tendency for parents to feel 'bounced' into decisions' on going grant-maintained. And LSI agrees with the Advisory Centre for Education that 'the encouragement of specialisation and diversity in schools will renew the spectre of selection throughout the secondary system'.

The county councils wonder who will deal with millions of parental queries which they 'inconspicuously' handle at present. Similarly, the Conservative leaders of the London Boroughs Association warn against a 'remote' Funding Agency: 'It will be quite impossible for this body to respond flexibly to local needs, or to the problems of aggrieved parents.'

The head teachers doubt whether most schools will opt out unless they are forced to, or given a clear financial incentive.

David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said yesterday: 'The White Paper makes no coherent attempt to plan the education service of the future. There needs to be a thorough debate during the progress of the forthcoming Bill about how an education system can be created with a minimum of confusion and uncertainty.'

His union suggests that financing powers should transfer to the national Funding Agency as soon as half of a local authority's schools have opted out, rather than split responsibility. It urges the Government to prevent local education authorities being left to 'wither on the vine': when three out of four primary or secondary schools have chosen grant-maintained status, all the rest should be made to go grant-maintained, the union says.

Respondents to the White Paper are unanimously frustrated by ministers' refusal to propose ways of increasing state nursery places. 'If the Government had wanted to respond to parental wishes and needs, it would have boosted nursery education', the NAHT says.