An expensive propaganda exercise

6th September 1996 at 01:00
The Scottish Office is sending out messages which, though clear, are bound to be received in contradictory ways. There is money available to a school which opts out. That is the only interpretation of the Pounds 575,000 grant being made to St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane. Stirling, to which the school has belonged until now, does not have that amount for its whole capital programme. Dornoch Academy, the opting-out pioneer, has already been well treated, while other Highland secondaries are in notorious need of capital spending.

Raymond Robertson is a more ardent supporter of opting out than his predecessor as education minister, Lord James Douglas Hamilton. Their boss, Michael Forsyth, is not likely to stand in the way of financial encouragement to make respectable the tally of schools which take advantage of legislation he himself pushed through as a junior minister.

Mr Robertson's enthusiasm is partly based on a belief that the reform of local government, coupled with devolved management, will encourage more schools to seek autonomy. Leaving aside the question whether responsibility directly to the Scottish Office offers more autonomy than is given by a local authority, the supposedly fresh attraction of opting out has still to be properly tested. No school free of a real or presumed threat of closure has tested the waters by calling for a ballot of parents. A second Paisley Grammar has not yet emerged to try its luck. One purpose of the St Mary's grant, however, must be to encourage parents to seek a better deal for their school. The Government has long hoped for school boards to recruit accountants and other men of the world in the assumption that they will draw up "business plans" for greater prosperity free of the social strategies espoused by local authorities at the expense of schools in prosperous areas.

The intention of the St Mary's gesture is bound to be read differently elsewhere. Teachers and many parents regard it as an affront at a time when the rest of the system is being starved of money. They know that the Government's generosity is possible because only a handful of other schools could be eligible before the general election. If there were a flood of opting-out applications, the sums would have to be recalculated, as grant-maintained schools south of the border quickly discovered when their numbers grew. Teachers, to whose dedication ministers repeatedly pay tribute, are left in cynical awareness that not only is their schools' plight disregarded while opted-out schools are helped but that the extra money really amounts to just promissory propaganda.

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