Opposition to opt-out schools is softening

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Indy Politics
FRAN ABRAMS AND

JUDITH JUDD

Left-wingers are abandoning their long-standing commitment to abolish opted-out schools, it was revealed last night. Labour's new policy, to be announced next week, will tone down its opposition to grant-maintained status.

Both the biggest teachers' union and a unit set up to put the local authorities' case are softening their position.

At the last election, Labour promised to end the separate status of opted- out schools but now intends to keep them and change their funding and admissions policies.

The paper is expected to propose that opted-out schools, which at present receive special grants, should get the same level of funding as other schools.

A Labour government would increase the amount of funding going directly to schools from the present 85 per cent. Local authorities would retain only a small proportion of funding and their power would be cut back.

However, the planning of school places will remain in the hands of local bodies and all schools will have local community representatives on their governing bodies. Opted-out schools are not required to have local authority representatives as governors.

The Funding Agency for Schools, which distributes money to opted-out schools and runs schools in areas where most have become grant-maintained, is likely to be abolished.

All schools would need to have fair admissions policies. Opted-out schools, which have been encouraged by the Government to select pupils, would not be allowed to do so under Labour.

There has been widespread speculation about Labour's position on opting out since it was revealed that Tony Blair has decided to send his son, Ewan, to a grant-maintained school, the London Oratory.

But controversy over the change of emphasis, which would have caused explosions of fury only a short time ago, now seems likely to be confined to the far left. Yesterday a paper from Local Schools' Information, which is funded by the local authorities, said that with equitable funding and democratic accountability, schools could live comfortably together.

"There is no desire in any quarter for a return to the 'Local Education Authority control' of the past," it says, adding that "there are lessons to be learned from the grant-maintained experience". The future could lie in local management, under which all schools now control their own budgets, it says.

Martin Rogers, spokesman for LSI, said opting-out was now effectively dead, with just 35 schools holding ballots last autumn, 18 of which rejected the idea. "What we have got at the moment is a horrendous mess and it is being increasingly rejected by parents."

On Monday, Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that if admissions policies and funding were changed and if all schools were made democratically accountable, then its opposition to opting-out need no longer stand.

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