Ministers may look to New Zealand model

Sarah Catherall

Ministers could be urged to drop parental ballots in an attempt to boost the number of opted-out schools.

The Grant Maintained Schools Foundation is examining a plan, originally developed by the New Zealand government, to give parents a majority vote on governing bodies as a way of scrapping parental ballots.

Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the foundation, said the New Zealand model - where parents form the majority on boards of trustees (governing bodies) - is "an interesting idea" and one worth studying. Sir Robert said the parental ballot may have to be abolished to meet Prime Minister John Major's aim of encouraging all schools to opt out of local authority control. And if governing bodies have more elected parent representatives, it will speed up the opting-out process as there will be no need to ballot parents first, he said.

At the moment, no one group has a controlling interest in school governing bodies in England and Wales. Under the 1986 Education Act, parents and local education authority representatives have the same number of seats, with the rest being made up of teacher representatives - a minority voice - and co-opted governors.

In New Zealand, elected eight-strong school boards must be comprised mainly of parents to ensure schools are run democratically. Schools need not ballot parents before choosing to opt out of government control, as it is felt boards represent parental opinion.

Critics of New Zealand's equivalent of grant-maintained schools fear parent-dominated boards will not have the expertise to handle budgets which often run into millions. When opting-out becomes optional in New Zealand from next year, the government will have the power to force schools back into central resourcing if they are not being run properly.

The country's grant-maintained schools - which control 100 per cent of their funding and are called bulk-funded schools - will be able to opt back into the system after three years.

Sir Robert said that if British governing bodies follow the New Zealand model, they would still need a good dollop of business expertise to ensure schools are run competently.

"I would want to make absolutely certain that the skills we have on our current governing bodies, with legal expertise, and accounting expertise, and architects, for example, are not lost.

"I would not want to do anything which would damage the excellent balance of skills which grant-maintained schools have at the moment by having too many parents," he said.

The vision of changing the structure of governing bodies to give parents a majority was first mooted in the mid-1980s by Sir Keith Joseph, the late education secretary, but was dismissed after teachers and politicians opposed it. But Sir Robert said it is time to revive the issue now the Government is concerned about getting all schools to become grant-maintained.

Almost 70 New Zealand schools - or about 3 per cent - are piloting bulk funding, a scheme being opened up to all schools that choose it from next year.

Yet while the British government is using opting out to increase its grip on school funding by removing control from local authorities, the New Zealand government, which currently controls the bulk of school funding, is using a similar mechanism to achieve the opposite result. It wants parents and local people to run schools with little interference.

New Zealand's Association of Bulk-Funded Schools is encouraging all schools to become bulk-funded, arguing it gives trustees - parents, staff and headteachers - greater flexibility and self-management.

But the secondary teachers' union, the Post-Primary Teachers' Association, is mounting an industrial campaign in schools that opt out of central resourcing because it fears bulk funding will lead to staff and cash cuts.

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