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Opt-out heads fear council control

Grant maintained schools are worried about being victimised by LEAs and want the right to appeal. Frances Rafferty reports.

Heads of grant-maintained schools are demanding to be able to appeal directly to the Secretary of State if they feel they are being intimidated by their local education authority.

In negotiations at the Department for Education and Employment over a proposed code of conduct for local authorities, the heads said they wanted safeguards when, as foundation schools, they will fall back under the ambit of their education authority.

Ministers and authority leaders have pledged to ensure a smooth return. But in areas where opt-out ballots became bitter battles, heads fear repercussions. One head said the chief education officer and chair of education refused to shake his hand at a council meeting.

Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, said: "The code of conduct should be tightly drawn and set down exactly what the local education authority's role is. The raising standards agenda should not be misused by local authorities and give them a carte blanche to go into former grant-maintained schools and get their own back."

She said the code of practice must also police the new arrangements for school funding, which will increase delegation from council budgets to schools.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, will tell DFEE officials and ministers at a meeting next week that the Government's motto of intervention in inverse proportion to success must be the guiding principle of the code.

He said it must make clear exactly when local authority powers to appoint new governors to schools or to withdraw budgets are triggered. Schools will expect a quality service from their authority and will need information on benchmarking so they can set their targets. Education authorities will also have to deliver a service to schools to allow them to follow the Government's standards agenda.

Mr Hart said if authorities were failing to provide a good service, schools should be able to complain to the Secretary of State. The Education Secretary should also be arbiter when a school and authority disagree, for example, on literacy targets for 11-year-olds.

The Local Government Association said it had discussed with David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, a code of practice based on objective criteria. But it was not told it would become a statutory code of conduct.

"We don't want to be running into schools," said LGA chairman Graham Lane. "But we do need to be able to intervene when a head is not giving a satisfactory performance. The GM heads appear to be having an undue influence on ministers and civil servants. They are giving a false view of local authorities and attempting to limit our powers of intervention."

David Wilcox, the LGA's deputy chair, said he hoped the code will not be used as a rod to beat local government, when the intention was to set out the responsibilities between schools, councils and the Education Secretary.

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