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Opting out fails to improve choice, says think-tank

Grant-maintained schools have failed to improve the choice or diversity of education, according to research published this week by the left-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research.

A quarter of the parents surveyed did not know their chosen schools had changed status, says a chapter in Educational Reform and its Consequences. Authors Sally Power, David Halpin and John Fitz interviewed 460 pupils from eight GM schools, and 216 of their parents.

"We have found little evidence to show that opting out has made any difference to either the directions along which parents and pupils choose schools or the nature of the provision available to them," they write. "Few of our sample of parents felt that GM status had any bearing on their choice.

"Our data indicate that nearly all the parents, irrespective of the kind of school their children attend, made their decision largely on the basis of locally constructed accounts of 'reputation' and 'atmosphere'. One quarter were completely unaware that their school had undergone any change in status, and were quite unacquainted with what 'grant-maintained' might mean."

The pupils noticed, however, that the schools were refurbished, redecorated, and had benefited from new resources. They also made unprompted comments on the strict school rules, dress codes in particular. There did not appear to have been any changes in the curriculum or in the teaching methods.

"Neither have we found anything to suggest that GM schools have, as yet, contributed to enhanced opportunities for those parents and children who were previously denied choice," says the report. There was, for example, little evidence that opted-out schools have been able to blur the boundary between state and private schooling.

Levels of parental involvement in school life were unaffected by GM status. Nor had the patterns of social class in schools changed since opting out. "Our findings suggest that GM status consolidates existing patterns of choice, " they conclude, "and may well, therefore, contribute to a polarisation of desirability rather than a more level differentiation of local provision. "

* Students with special needs are losing out under the new market-based recruitment methods. Writing in the same volume, three academics from the Centre for Educational Studies at King's College, London, say they have evidence of a shift of resources away from students with special needs.

"Well-established and proven systems of SEN teaching in schools are being dismantled or much reduced in size," they maintain. "Schools are concerned that they will be labelled by parents as 'caring' rather than 'academic' institutions."

This conflicts with research by Professor Ron Glatter at the Open University, who found that schools were attempting to appear more caring to attract middle-class parents.

* National curriculum tests for seven-year-olds should be scrapped, and the rest suspended for four years, according to an article written by Professor Paul Black, who chaired the group which set up the testing regime. He now says that the original purpose has been subverted, as a system based heavily on teacher assessment has been replaced by externally-marked "pencil and paper" tests to use in league tables. He believes that suspending tests would allow time for a national training programme and the return of assessment.

Educational Reform and its Consequences, edited by Professor Sally Tomlinson, is published by Rivers Oram Press, 144 Hemingford Road, London N1.

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