Escape route sought from private sector

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Small independent progressive and religious schools are seeking ways to become state-funded. New, parent-run schools that want to "opt in" to the state sector should be able to apply to the Government for funding for a trial period of three years, according to proposals in a book published today.

Funding would cover only running costs, not capital. Towards the end of its third funded year, the school would receive a full inspection to decide whether it should be given full grant-maintained status.

These proposals are put forward by the Third Sector Schools Alliance, a group of 300 small schools - Christian, Muslim and Steiner - who currently get no public funds and have been described as the "reluctant private sector".

They argue that only the inclusion of such schools in the maintained sector can produce real choice and diversity for parents and children. At present, say the schools, choice is only for the rich and relatively well off and experiment is confined to the private sector.

While the 1993 Education Act allows schools to opt in, the Government has so far rejected applications from Muslim, evangelical Christian and Rudolf Steiner schools for grant-maintained status. Last December, Oak Hill, a Christian school in Bristol, had its application refused on the grounds of "insufficient evidence of demand for secondary places", the local education authority's reluctance to make the site available, and capital costs.

Apart from their small size and the possibility of LEAs using the "surplus places" argument, one of the main obstacles these schools face in seeking grant-maintained status is the national curriculum. Some members of the alliance would be prepared to teach it; others, notably Muslim and Steiner schools, would not.

But they point out that little-noticed sections of the 1988 Education Reform Act could get round this problem. Section 16 permits schools to apply to the Education Secretary to opt out of all or part of the national curriculum to permit experimental or development work. Section 17 allows the Education Secretary to authorise any departure from the national curriculum.

The schools in the alliance accept, however, that they could only expect to win public funding if they provided a broad and balanced curriculum and did not attempt to indoctrinate their pupils.

Contributors to the new book, Freeing Education point out that parents in other countries, such as Holland and Denmark, are offered much greater diversity within the state-financed sector. In Denmark, for example, one-fifth of all schools are "private" - established in response to parental demand, with 85 per cent of their running costs met by the state. These include progressive free schools and Muslim schools.

David Hargreaves, professor of education at Cambridge University, writes in support of more diversity in schools.

Ruling out a return to either the pre-1965 or the pre-1979 comprehensive system, he urges the development of more distinctive or specialised schools.

"The most promising way of balancing individual rights and collective welfare is to adhere to an anti-selective comprehensive principle within a school system characterised by unaccustomed and innovative diversity and choice, " he writes.

Lord Young of Dartington, in his introduction to the book, says schools must keep plugging away until they overcome the "tiresome obstacles" politicians put in the way of reform. Politicians and civil servants are ruled by precedent, he observes.

"Once there is a breakthrough, there will be a chance. To do anything new in England you still have to pretend it is not new."

Freeing Education, edited by F Carnie, M Large and M Tasker, is published by Hawthorn Press at Pounds 9.95

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