Schools require incentives to alter their status: John Patten has not been able to give the cash promises that would make opting out irresistible. Donald MacLeod and Judith Judd report

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The Independent Online
APPLICATIONS FOR grant maintained status from two Nottinghamshire comprehensives will soon land on John Patten's desk. Is this proof that opting-out is gathering strength even in Labour-controlled areas and that the Secretary of State for Education is within sight of his proclaimed target of 1,500 grant maintained schools by April 1994?

Given that the majorities in the ballots in question were two votes at George Spencer School and four at Greenwood Dale School, Mr Patten should perhaps feel a twinge of nervousness about hitting his target. The mass of parents, it would seem, remain to be convinced. The opting-out bandwagon, for long poised to roll, is still requiring a lot of pushing and shoving from ministers.

Schools were said to be waiting for the general election result to sign up for grant maintained status, but the rush did not happen. In Bedfordshire, for instance, schools discussed opting out en masse. In the event only one out of five secondaries voted yes and eight did not get as far as a ballot.

The ballots continue in England and Wales - no Scottish schools have opted out - and a large majority of them support grant maintained status (eight out of ten, with 584 ballots in favour so far). But opting out remains concentrated in a relatively small number of mainly Tory areas.

However, the grant maintained option has given schools a powerful weapon for extracting money from local authorities, or curbing plans for closure. Headteachers hardly have to make the threat to opt out explicit.

Combined with the delegation of budgets to schools, based on pupil numbers rather than the local authorities' own priorities, this has meant a transfer of funding from inner city schools to the suburbs. If parents and headteachers can get what they want without opting out, why bother to make the leap?

The enthusiasts for the idea among headteachers and governors have already achieved grant maintained status. What counts now is cash.

For instance at Chellaston School, near Derby, which became grant maintained on 1 January, the headteacher, Howell Thomas, said: 'It was done purely for financial reasons in desperation with the official budget of the local education authority.'

Mr Thomas said that neighbouring schools received up to pounds 800 more per pupil because they were in areas of social deprivation while Chellaston was faced with cutting funding for staff and books. Parents at the oversubscribed school voted 87 per cent in favour of opting out.

But in most cases the financial advantage is not so clear cut. Increased financial pressure on local authorities may provoke more schools to opt out. Mr Patten, however, is hemmed in by the Treasury's reluctance to offer financial incentives to a growing number of opted-out schools; he has not been able to promise the financial carrots that would probably make the difference.

Local authorities point out, however, that though this may be true in the first year, once a group of schools has opted out, the Government will control funding and will force down cash for schools to any level that it wants. There is no mention in a discussion paper on how opted out schools will be funded, issued just before Christmas, of the Government's intention to increase money to opted out schools in local authorities like Birmingham, where the council spends less than government guidelines suggest.

Mr Patten has said that no school will lose out in relation to neighbouring schools by opting out. But the discussion paper could not give schools the minimum promise they seek: that the cash advantages enjoyed by the first schools to opt out will continue.