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GM heads say no to bank borrowing

A TES survey finds attitudes in the opted-out sector still set against loans and selection, reports Clare Dean.

"I don't want to start the school year with heavy mortgages hanging like a millstone round my neck." David Robinson, head of Wibsey middle, a 480-pupil school in Bradford, spoke for many as he rejected the idea of boosting school funds by borrowing cash commercially.

While grant-maintained heads argue that autonomy and independence are the best thing about breaking away from the local authority, few are prepared to test the water on bank loans. "I would want to see how it worked with others before taking the plunge," said Mervyn Brooker, from King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in Birmingham.

Alan Crompton, from Audenshaw High in Manchester, added: "I am uneasy about mortgaging the school for another head to pick up the bill."

Fifteen months ago, just a quarter of the 514 heads questioned by The TES in a nationwide survey of GM schools said they were interested in borrowing money commercially; nearly half said they would not, while others spoke out against "selling off the family silver".

A follow-up survey of a quarter of those heads by The TES this week found continued hostility. Of the 66 secondary schools surveyed this week, just 10 - 15 per cent - had changed their minds on borrowing, with eight definitely wanting to take up the offer. The rest were "maybes".

Eight of the 46 primaries interviewed this week had rethought their policy on borrowing - four now said yes (three of whom had been previously opposed); three who had previously said no now said they might and one which had thought it might now ruled out the option.

Feelings still run high - despite Government attempts to ease borrowing through the GM and Nursery Schools Bill, which was given its first reading last week.

There is also deep-seated resentment about the consultation paper issued last week by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, which outlined measures to increase from 10 per cent to 15 per cent the proportion of pupils schools can select without her permission.

"We are a comprehensive school. It would be immoral for us to introduce selection," said Paul Strong, head of William Farr school in Welton, near Lincoln.

Richard Cootes, of Bay House school in Gosport, Hampshire, added: "GM isn't about selection. The announcement to increase the amount of pupils schools can select to 15 per cent is disastrous. The already strong schools will get stronger by creaming out the intelligent, middle-class pupils."

Bernard Barker, from Stanground College, Peterborough, said: "We believe the whole attempt to introduce selection or specialisation is fundamentally wrong." Fifteen months ago, 463 GM heads expressed reluctance to change either admission policies, borrowing or both. Sixty-three of the 66 schools who 15 months ago said they had no plans to change the way they selected pupils said they still felt the same.

Only one secondary in Hertfordshire is looking to select 50 per cent of its pupils, while two others - in Cheshire and Luton - were considering the idea. It is not clear what level of selection they might introduce, although the school in Luton - Stopsley high - may select in the future on the grounds of musical or PE abilities.

Not one primary said it would consider selecting if over-subscribed.

Many schools said they had no collateral to offer as security for a loan. "At the end of this year I'll have about Pounds 300 left, and you can't borrow against that," said Nigel Powis, head of St Andrew's CE primary in Weeley, Essex.

Others believed that the ability for GM schools to borrow on the open market could be used by Government as an excuse not to fund the sector properly.

"It seems to me that this will be a way that the Department for Education and Employment can say 'We haven't got the money, you borrow it'. It puts a desperate need for money back on to schools for things that are really a landlord's responsibility," said John Bennett, of Marshland High in West Walton, Cambridgeshire.

"We have roofs, put up in the Sixties with a 10-year lifespan that are now leaking like a sieve, and I suspect the DFEE might say you borrow to get them fixed. This could be misused but could also be very useful if you wanted to build a classroom very quickly."

Les Clarke, head of the Holy Trinity primary in Dartford, Kent, was among the 18 heads who had re-thought their policy on loans.

"Governors and heads are more confident now in the commercial world," said Mr Clarke. "We have to look at all sources of finance - the single regeneration budget, European funding and borrowing from a bank if that is the best way forward."

But the idea of using buildings as collateral - the DFEE has said they must not be core assets or essential for the national curriculum - remained a major obstacle.

"I'm interested in the idea, but I can't mortgage the grounds or my buildings - the only thing I have got is the caretaker's house," joked Derek Dorey, head of Selsdon Primary in Croydon.

Additional research by Mark Whitehead, Emily Humphries and Helen King.

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