Teaching 'no better' in opted-out schools: Grant-maintained status has led to improved funding and conditions but the case for raised educational standards is not yet proven

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The Independent Online
STANDARDS VARY as widely in grant-maintained schools as they do in local authority schools, according to the first report from inspectors on opting out.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, told the Grant-Maintained Schools Conference in Birmingham on Monday that 'self-governing status helps to make more schools good, and good schools better'. But the inspectors stop short of endorsing that view. They say that standards among the youngest pupils in opted-out secondaries are better than other schools, probably because teachers had higher expectations of new pupils starting in the grant-maintained sector. However, they add, 'the quality of teaching in grant- maintained schools is not significantly better or worse' than other state schools. Nearly one in four lessons in opted-out schools was deemed unsatisfactory or poor, with about 35 per cent of lessons being good or very good.

The biggest difference, the inspectors say, is that grant-maintained schools have used their extra funds to improve resources and target their spending more effectively. Many have recruited additional teachers and paid higher salaries to staff.

The long-awaited report from Ofsted, the new inspection authority, is based on visits to 81 of the first 143 secondary schools to opt out. More than 500 opted-out schools are now up and running, and a further 200 have won approval in ballots of parents. Most are from among the 3,900 secondary schools in England and Wales; by the end of this week, 105 primaries will have opted out.

Opting out is concentrated in certain areas: of the 109 local education authorities, 43 have not yet had a school vote to opt out, and a further 16 have had only one 'yes' ballot.

The inspectors say that grant-maintained schools have generally 'set about their work with vigour', are adapting well, and 'attracting increasing numbers of pupils'. Relations with neighbouring local authority schools had usually improved, although the inspectors note that 'tensions sometimes occur' when schools 'lose or expect to lose prospective pupils, or when they think that grant-maintained schools have received more favourable treatment'.

'Initial apprehensions' among teachers in opted-out schools had 'diminished with time, and they have in general warmed to grant-maintained status'. Morale had improved with extra resources, and most schools were finding ways around the professional isolation which many teachers feared would follow from being cut off from local authority advice and support. Links had been forged with other opted-out schools and with independent schools.

The main benefit for grant-maintained schools proved to be extra resources: 'There is no doubt that from the outset grant-maintained schools have greatly benefited financially from their change of status.' Greater room for budgetary manoeuvre enabled many schools to gain better terms from suppliers and contractors, while others had increased revenue by investing funds and letting buildings.

Most schools had opted out with a strong body of governors. Their knowledge of schools 'varied greatly', but few were flagging under the extra commitment.

Opting out encouraged governors and teachers to work more closely, helping 'to build mutual understanding and to get things done'. The exception was Stratford school, in east London, where 'a dispute between the head and governing body had led to court action . . . and a delay in implementing necessary measures.'

Many heads and governors had taken the opportunity to restructure management, but a third of schools had yet to produce a development plan, and few had an effective method of evaluating their own performance.

Grant-maintained schools 1989-92; HMSO; pounds 3.50.