Last night's announcement by Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, marks a significant extension of proposals in the Education Bill that have been attacked by opposition MPs as a 'back-door' means of creating grant-maintained schools without parental votes.
The Bill would allow the Funding Agency for Schools to set up grant-maintained schools in areas where it was operating alongside a local education authority. Groups or individuals will also be able to come forward with proposals for new schools. An amendment by the right- wing peer Lord Skidelsky, proposing to extend this power to the whole of England, was withdrawn after Lady Blatch said that ministers would consider it.
Under the Bill the funding agency would help to plan schooling in a local authority where 10 per cent of secondary or primary pupils are in opted-out schools. In small authorities this can mean one or two schools and ministers predict that the agency will be able to operate in half the English education authorities by the time the Bill becomes law later this year.
Proposals for Muslim schools would be treated in the same way as proposals for Jewish or church schools, Lady Blatch said yesterday. Any school conforming to the national curriculum and treating boys and girls equally, and with suitable premises, would be considered for grant-maintained status.