Schools will have to consider ballot on opting out

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The Independent Online
SCHOOL GOVERNING bodies will be required to consider opting out under an amendment which ministers will soon be tabling to the Education Bill.

The move - being planned by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education - takes a step towards those Tories who believe schools will need to be nudged a little harder if they are to break out from local authority control.

Mr Patten suspects too many governing bodies are allowing the option of going grant-maintained to slip to the end of their agendas, so that in some areas the issue is barely being discussed.

His amendment to the Bill, which resumes its committee stage in the Commons tomorrow, will require governing bodies to debate within a given period whether to hold an opting-out ballot.

The Secretary of State has rejected the more drastic tactic of requiring all schools to hold a ballot. His advisers believe that many schools are fearful of floating free from their local authorities now, but may change their minds in time.

So far, parents have voted in favour of opting out at more than 600 schools: 337 are operating, 30 more have been approved by Mr Patten, 220 are in the pipeline, and 52 have had their applications rejected by the Secretary of State, usually because they were using the ballot to try to avoid closure.

Mr Patten is very confident that the projections he made last week - 1,000 ballots in favour by the end of this year, and 1,500 by April 1994 - will be achieved comfortably. But that will still represent, at best, around one in four of the 3,900 state secondary schools, and only a tiny proportion of the 19,000 primary schools in England and Wales.

Even within the Government, there is considerable uncertainty about whether the pace of opting out will accelerate; some advisers have warned Mr Patten that the absence of clear incentives may actually lead to a slow-down. Mr Patten published a consultation paper before Christmas on future funding arrangements for local authority and opted out schools, in which he was unable to promise that cash benefits will continue. The Education Bill will create a national Funding Agency for Schools, which will distribute funds to opted out schools. When large numbers of schools become grant-maintained in any given council area, a common funding formula will be introduced locally to decide how funds are to be distributed among the remaining local authority schools and their opted out neighbours.

Many schools doubt they will end up being better off under that system. They are also sceptical about the extra benefit of being free from local authority control when they already manage at least 85 per cent of their budgets.

Ministers hope there will come a point at which the number of schools opting out suddenly tips the balance, encouraging a surge. Some churchmen point to the funding advantages for voluntary- aided Roman Catholic and Anglican schools. There is clear evidence that, once a large number of schools in a local authority area opt out, many more follow. The domino effect, however, has only occurred in a small group of Tory councils.