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Specialists urged to opt out

Heads welcome plan to give them more independence. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

All specialist schools are to be encouraged to seek foundation status, distancing them from local authorities and creating a new "opt-out" sector.

The Specialist Schools Trust is issuing advice to its 2,000 secondaries on how to take advantage of a new fast-track route which would give them greater powers over admissions and staff recruitment.

Headteachers' leaders back the move, which would effectively re-create the former grant-maintained sector. Many of the schools that now have specialist status opted out under the Conservative policy and were forced back under the aegis of councils when Labour came to power.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who is also a member of the Specialist Schools Trust council, said: "Heads will welcome the autonomy and independence. Many heads feel this is a natural status for secondary schools."

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "A sizeable minority of schools will be happy to move away from local authorities, which they feel are not providing much in the way of services."

The trust envisages schools establishing clusters, or federations, to act as the admissions authority. The groupings would co-operate in teacher recruitment, with staff working in more than one school if the need arose.

The proposals were unveiled by Sir Cyril Taylor, the trust's chairman, and a government adviser.

He said that while specialist schools could not be forced to seek foundation status, he hoped they could be persuaded. Advice on how to go about it is to be sent out to schools.

Sir Cyril said: "We believe in our headteachers having maximum independence. It does not imply a hostility towards local authorities. It would mean greater control over admissions and the hiring of staff."

Local authorities would continue to have a "co-ordinating role", he said.

Responsibility for admissions would involve more work for schools, he warned. Under the proposals, schools would cease to use proximity as a criteria for entry. Fewer places would be available to local children, and instead pupils living as far as a 20-minute drive away would have a chance of a place.

Sir Cyril said that in areas with a diverse range of specialist schools, parents would have greater choice about where to send their children. "It seems ridiculous that a child who has an interest and aptitude in languages should have to go to the local technology college because that is their nearest school," he said.

Alison King, chair of the children and young people board of the Local Government Association and leader of Norfolk county council, said: "We are very concerned about the erosion of local authority influence from the school improvement agenda. These proposals require excellent leadership from both heads and governors."

Joan Binder, co-chairman of the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association, said: "By maximising their autonomy, individual schools will be able to progress and respond to the needs of their students."

However, Terry Creissen, head of The Colne community school, in Essex, said the plans did not go far enough.

Mr Creissen, whose school already has foundation status, said: "Specialist foundation schools should have the same freedoms from local education authorities as academies, which can be totally independent from local government.

"I do not need to be paying for an education director in a town hall when I already have a governing body."

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