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All aboard the selection bus


Timetable for action * Queen's Speech, November: legislation to introduce OFSTED powers to inspect LEAs and possibly selection * Next Parliament: changes to local management which would apply from 1999-2000

Geraldine Hackett opens four pages on the Tories' controversial 'Self-government for Schools'

The more radical measures in this week's White Paper to increase the number of grammar schools and create selective streams in existing secondaries are unlikely to be implemented before the general election.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, unveiled an elaborate package that allows the Conservatives to stake their claim as the champions of grammar schools but provides for a gradual introduction of greater selection.

The proposals fall short of meeting right-wing aspirations for a grammar school in every town. The Funding Agency for Schools (FAS) is to be given new powers to submit proposals for grammars in any area where a new school is required.

Existing schools can apply to the Education Secretary to become fully selective. Where local authorities oppose grammar school plans, governors will be able to appeal to the Government.

However, Mrs Shephard accepts that new grammar schools will emerge only in areas where there is a shortage of school places. Grant-maintained schools have always been able to submit proposals to become selective.

Mrs Shephard said the number of secondary pupils was rising by 30,000 a year. Conservative strategists calculate there could be as many as 25 new schools required over the next few years in areas with expanding populations.

GM schools may be more attracted to the opportunity to create a grammar school stream. However, the White Paper points out that just 40 of the 1,115 GM schools have taken advantage of the existing freedom to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils.

In the main, the measures are unlikely to trigger a dramatic increase in selection. GM schools will be able to select up to half their intake and specialist schools up to 30 per cent. However, the bulk of schools will not be able to change the basis of admitting pupils without the consent of the mainly Labour-controlled local education authorities.

Schools will be required by law to consider annually whether they should introduce greater selection; governors currently vote annually on whether they should ballot parents on opting for GM status.

The legislation required to introduce new measures on selection is likely in the next parliamentary session and have little likelihood of coming into force before the election. The first school year for which they could apply is 1998.

Of the draft measures outlined, only the promise to give the Office for Standards in Education the power to inspect the effectiveness of LEAs' work in supporting schools are certain to be in this autumn's legislative programme.

The Government also intends a further squeeze on local authorities by increasing from 85 per cent to 95 per cent the proportion of spending to be delegated to schools. The White Paper suggests the change will mean an additional Pounds 600 million distributed to schools. The impact has been lessened by the decision to allow education authorities to retain centrally the amount they spend on special needs.

However, for the first time in recent administrations, the Government acknowledges a substantial role for local authorities. They have the major task, it says, of allocating and monitoring the budgets of 20,000 schools.

In addition, they are required to intervene in cases where schools are identified as having serious weaknesses. It suggests there may be a case for local education authorities to be able to issue formal warnings to schools, setting out the problems and the actions that need to be taken.

The regulations governing GM schools are also to be tightened up. Foundation governors will no longer be able to serve for seven years, but will be restricted to five. The Education Secretary is to take new powers to send hit squads into failing GM schools.

The White Paper makes clear that changes in funding arrangements for schools will require consultation and could not apply until 1999.

Mrs Shephard appears to have held her corner in the fight for the soul of the White Paper. The Number 10 policy unit had wanted radical initiatives to create more grammar schools.

The Education Secretary may have been able to stave off the right-wing offensive on the grounds that their proposals would involve substantial capital expenditure. The FAS is not getting capital funds beyond what is needed to provide school places in expanding areas. GM schools can open nursery classes and sixth-forms, but there is no guarantee of capital funds and, in the case of nurseries, running costs for three-year-olds. (The voucher scheme will provide running costs for four-year-olds.) The timetable for proposals are: The Queen's speech this autumn, in which OFSTED will be given powers to inspect local authorities; legislation to introduce selection and to require governors to consider whether parents want greater selection.

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