Patten 'hedges'on compulsory opting out call: Dilemma over grant-maintained schools policy

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Indy Politics
JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education, refused yesterday to exclude compulsory opting out for all secondary schools, but revealed the Government's dilemma over its faltering policy.

Ministers are keen to promote opting out but reluctant to abandon their commitment to parental choice, under which parents must vote in favour of a school becoming grant-maintained.

Supporters of grant-maintained schools at a London conference urged the Secretary of State to replace the present system of parental ballots with compulsion. So far, only about 16 per cent of nearly 4,000 secondary schools have become grant-maintained. Mr Patten said parental choice remained the centrepiece of the policy but declined to give a categorical assurance that ballots would continue to be the only route to opting out.

He told a conference organised by the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank, that those who wanted compulsion argued that 'if the Government believes that the concept of self-governing status is preferable to local authority control, it should have the courage of its convictions and legistlate now for the introduction of grant maintained status throughout the education system. Against that, though, must be set our commitment to parental choice. We have constantly emphasised the centrality of parental choice to our education reforms.'

However, Mr Patten added: 'My door remains open to those who may have ideas on how to promote the wider achievement of grant- maintained status without doing harm to to the principle of parental choice.' But, as he has said that there will be no more education legislation this parliament, any changes to the policy will be made after the next general election.

Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools' Trust, told the conference: 'It is not yet time to legislate to push all secondary schools to self-governing status. Many more will have opted out by the time of the next election. After the next three years, it may well be time.'

At last year's Conservative Party conference, Mr Patten said that he 'would eat his hat - garnished' if more than half the secondary schools had failed to opt out by the next general election. However, the rate of secondary schools voting to opt out has fallen sharply during the past 18 months.

Roy Pryke, director of education for Kent County Council, told the conference that discussions about opting out were a diversion. 'We should be concentrating instead on the national curriculum and how we monitor and inspect schools.'