Parliament & Politics: Fewer schools decide to ballot on opting out

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Indy Politics
FEWER SCHOOLS have decided to ballot on opting out since the general election, according to figures released yesterday.

Jack Straw, Labour's education spokesman, said predictions that an avalanche of schools would opt out of local council control following a Conservative victory have proved untrue.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has told Mr Straw in a parliamentary written answer that only 56 schools have decided this term to ballot parents on an application for grant-maintained status. Several of those ballots will not be held until the autumn, and only six are in areas controlled by Labour councils.

Since the election 47 schools have balloted on opting out, with 42 voting in favour. That makes 394 ballots in favour since opting out began in 1988, and 113 against.

The figures suggest that many schools are waiting for the Government's education White Paper before they decide whether to apply for grant-maintained status.

Mr Straw said yesterday that Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Education before the election, had predicted an 'avalanche'. Mr Clarke accepted predictions from the Grant-Maintained Schools Trust that up to 2,000 schools were ready to go.

'For all the hype, and the immediate post-election panic, these figures show that the landscape so far is virtually unchanged,' Mr Straw said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers of governing bodies have held meetings over the past two or three weeks, with opting out at the top of their agendas. Most have decided, however, to postpone any decision on balloting until next term, when they have a better idea of ministers' intentions.

Schools are particularly anxious to know whether opting out will offer the prospect of more money. At present, opted-out schools receive an additional 16 per cent on their budgets. Ministers say that the extra money is intended to cover the cost of administrative support formerly undertaken by the local council, but most schools see it as an incentive to opt out.

Mr Straw, however, warned schools against raising their hopes of extra funds: 'Unless John Patten is extremely lucky, the public spending round will confirm that the bribes and financial inducements which have been the prime stimulant of opting-out are unlikely to be sustained on anything like this scale for the rest of this Parliament.'

The new education ministers are uncertain how rapidly schools will opt out. They believe that the pace is likely to accelerate once the White Paper clarifies the future shape of schools administration. They also expect that schools which have opted out will encourage others to follow.

The White Paper, expected at the end of this month, will nevertheless have to put in place a system for funding grant-maintained schools which can cope with any pace of opting out. Ministers are also having to accept that local education authorities will continue to have a substantial role in running a large number of schools for the foreseeable future, because a sizeable proportion of parents will continue to reject opt-out proposals.