The right-wing dream of a nation of grant-maintained schools has moved a step closer to realisation with the publication of the party's 1997 manifesto. While it stops short of advocating that all schools should be forced to opt out, it outlines plans for local authority schools to get the vast bulk of the education money provided by the Government, take control of staff employment contracts and admissions and even - if they want - take over ownership of their land and buildings.
Local authorities would continue to be responsibl e for standards in schools, provide funds and compete with other bodies to provide services, losing something like half of their current funding in the process.
Launching the manifesto, Prime Minister John Major said: "Our ultimate goal is to give every school within the state sector full control over their affairs.
Education Secretary Gillian Shephard said the new Locally Maintained Schools would be independent legal entities with charitable status, which would enable them to borrow money against their assets. Legislation would be needed to bring about the changes, with secondary schools leading the way, followed by the larger primaries. The smallest schools would have the option of working in clusters.
Schools taking control of their own assets would be optional, she hinted, only "in the first instance".
Cash for repairs and maintenance would be devolved to schools, whilst capital money would be allocated via the local authorities. However, since the new schools would be legal entities, they could borrow money privately against their assets, thus making no impact on the public sector borrowing requirement. Mrs Shephard said money to pay for early retirements would also be passed to schools from the local authorities.
Although admissions would be down to the individual schools, local authoritie s would be expected to co-ordinate them in much the same way as the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handles prospective students applying to universities. The LEAs would also retain responsibility for special educational needs and the funding to carry out assessments, while cash and functions devolved to schools would include transport, meals, premature retirement compensation, SEN support, advisory and inspection services and staff costs.
Mrs Shephard said: "By analogy, these are the most successful features of local management and how the voluntary-aided system and the grant-maintained system works, giving schools more independence and redefining the role of local education authorities."
A source close to the Education Secretary said much of the inspiration for the scheme had come from the voluntary-aided model. Such schools would stay very much the same, but with extra funding.
The scheme has the hallmarks of a compromise between hardline Tories, who want to see the end of education authorities and a nation of opted-out schools, and moderates who believe in parental choice and local democracy. Whilst not entirely killing off LEAs, the scheme would certainly emasculate them, but would retain the option of blaming them for poor school standards.
Much of its contents are a resurrection of policies hastily axed from the Education Bill when Parliament was prorogued a fortnight ago.
These include plans to establish grammar school in every major town "where parents want that choice". According to Mrs Shephard, this would mean a parental ballot in a potential grammar school, but another announcement is likely before polling day.
Another is the expansion of specialist secondary schools with the intention of bringing them up to 20 per cent of the total by the year 2001.
The manifesto promises a guarantee of educational standards to parents, with national targets for school performance, benchmarking, full information for parents and action on underperforming schools. More rigorous teacher appraisal - already being developed by the Teacher Training Agency - is promised, as is inspection of LEAs and action against poor performers.
* A guarantee of education standards for every parent.
* Publication of school league tables for seven and 14-year-olds.
* One in five schools to be specialist by 2001.
* All schools to select some pupils.
* More independence for local authority schools: greater proportion of budget to be delegated, more freedom over employment of staff and admissions. Where they want it, schools to take over ownership of assets.
* Help for schools to become grammars .
* A more rigorous and effective system of appraising teachers, reflecting test and exam performance.
* Independent inspection of local authorities and powers to intervene.