Braced for a return to the local authority

20th November 1998 at 00:00
On deadline day for the 1,199 grant-maintained schools to choose their status in Labour's brave new system, The TES talks to two GM headteachers as they take the plunge

Situated in leafy Surrey by the banks of a canal, Fullbrook School is almost the stereotype of an affluent, successful grant-maintained school.

Signs of investment are everywhere. Approaching the school on foot, you pass signs advertising its new Pounds 3 million sports centre, complete with tennis courts and a gym. "We didn't go grant-maintained just for the extra money, " claims Graham Holliday, chair of governors. But both he and the head, Richard Elms, acknowledge they have received significantly more cash.

As well as the sports centre - which attracted Pounds 1m of lottery funding - the school is spending heavily on staff training -"probably twice as much as a local-authority school" - and computers.

Finance manager Doug Munson estimates the school has spent between Pounds 120,000 and Pounds 150,000 on computer equipment over the past three years. A local parent admitted that "nobody imagined it (going GM) would make such a difference."

The school is bracing itself for cuts when it returns to the education authority fold. Mr Elms joked that the cuts will be too appalling to contemplate and conceded that: "It will be quite difficult. Assuming Surrey gets a reasonable settlement, we hope we won't have to make any redundancies. "

Mr Munson attended a meeting recently where the local authority indicated about Pounds 15,000 a year would be available to Fullbrook for building repairs. "Last year we severely pruned back that category, we slashed it to Pounds 25,000. Previously we were spending Pounds 50,000."

Fullbrook opted out in 1994, after the local authority changed the secondary starting-age from 12 to 11. "There was a feeling that we had been ill-served with regard to the building work associated with that. There was wasted money, inappropriate building and little input for schools," explains Mr Elms.

Campaigning seems to have been low key. Brigid Saunders, a parent, was content to trust the board of governors. "I got the impression that if we didn't go GM we would miss out on funding. We never seemed to get what we needed."

But money was not the only reason to opt-out. Increased responsibility was a key attraction of GM status. "If something is successful it is down to us. If anything is unsuccessful it is also down to us."

So are they worried about losing control of their own affairs when they switch to foundation status? Mr Holliday seems relaxed: "Our autonomy should remain the same. Other schools are becoming more and more like GM schools."

Mr Elms agrees: "We feared that we might end up back in the Stone Age. There are many authorities who still hanker after that. But the authority has made a real effort to smooth the transition back. This is not the case with all of my colleagues elsewhere. There are some old scores still to be settled."

Jon Slater

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