Under the Education Bill, a proposed Funding Agency for Schools will be able to put forward plans to open new schools and close or reorganise existing ones.
During the Committee Stage of the Bill yesterday, Labour and Liberal members attempted to probe the wide-ranging powers and role of the new funding body for grant-maintained schools.
Stephen Byers, Labour MP for Wallsend, said that, until now, schools had only become grant- maintained if parents voted for the change. 'What we could see is the rapid development of the grant-maintained sector through funding agency initiatives without parental ballots,' he said.
Clause seven of the Bill gives shared responsibility for providing sufficient school places to the local authority and the funding agency, once 10 per cent of pupils in an area are in opted-out schools. The local authority's responsibility is removed entirely once that proportion reaches 75 per cent.
Opposition MPs pointed out that in small authorities the 10 per cent trigger could be reached after only one or two secondary schools opted out. Mr Byers said: 'The exercise of those significant powers may not be dealt with in a way that respects parental choice or that needs to be efficient.'
Eric Forth, the schools minister, told the committee that he expected much of the expansion of places to come from the grant- maintained sector. He expected education authorities to exchange information with the funding agency and reach a common view. However, it would be open to either to bring forward their own proposals which would be judged 'totally impartially' by the Secretary of State.
Ann Taylor, Labour spokeswoman on education, said a major conflict would be where surplus places had to be eliminated. How could the funding agency be impartial? It would have a vested interest in luring any school threatened with closure into the grant- maintained sector. Mr Forth replied: 'The idea that there is somehow an escape route into the grant-maintained sector for schools threatened with closure is quite wrong.'
A Labour amendment barring the establishment of the funding agency until the Government's target of 1,500 grant-maintained schools for 1993 had been reached was defeated.
Don Foster, Liberal MP for Bath, said the Bill was the latest in a series of 'damaging and dogmatic' attacks on local government. He said that the funding agency should be given a specific remit to close surplus places. The Bill would allow the agency to establish a new grant-maintained school in an area where there was a surfeit of local education authority places.
Ms Taylor said that the formula proposed by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, of 'parallel but not shared responsibilities' between education authorities and the funding agency would make it impossible to plan schooling in an area. 'The consequences of clause seven are going to be chaos in our education system for years to come,' she said.
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