Fears of councils' new powers grow

5th September 1997 at 01:00
As the Government abolishes opted-out schools, will local authorities try to get rid of GM heads? Clare Dean reports

Leaders of grant-maintained schools fear that local authorities will use new powers given to them by the Government to wreak revenge on opted-out headteachers as the sector is abolished.

They are worried about the right and duty soon to be available to councils to report concerns about the head to governors - and ask what they are going to do about it.

Pauline Latham, chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, said there were scores to be settled as the Government abolishes the 1,100-strong school sector. "There are still a lot of wounds on both sides, " she said. "There are real fears that some LEAs might use these new powers to get rid of headteachers."

Mrs Latham spoke out as details of the Government's plans for education - with its three new categories of community, aided and foundation school - became clearer. A document released at the beginning of last month put the flesh on the bones of the Excellence in Schools White Paper. It outlines the new categories and does away with the financial advantages that the GM sector has enjoyed.

The paper also reveals that the Government's pledge to cut class size will take precedence over parental choice. "Reducing class size may mean limiting the number of places available for admission to some primary and infant schools," it admits.

Schools will be allocated a category by the Government next year and will be given until December to decide whether it is acceptable.

Ministers expect that voluntary controlled schools and GM schools which were previously controlled or county schools would become foundation schools. Voluntary aided or special agreement schools - or GM schools that were formerly so - are expected to join the new category. All special schools, whether GM or not, would become community special schools.

Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have reacted angrily to the proposals, claiming they could spell an end to church schools in their current form.

They fear they will lose control over admission to their schools. Some GM church schools are considering foundation status - the closest to the opt-out sector.

Local Schools Information, the anti-opting-out pressure group, has warned that the new framework could lead to a repetition of the "divisive" campaigns and ballots which have dogged opting out. It claimed the new framework would perpetuate and even extend the hierarchies created by GM status.

Under the new arrangements, foundation schools will have at least two LEA governors.

Mrs Latham said the autonomy that GM schools had enjoyed would be lost because local authorities would want to get involved. "They are going to want to find out what has been going on in GM schools in the past few years. There is a danger they are going to come in a bit heavy-handed.

"Councils are going to have to come in sensitively, otherwise there are going to be rifts - LEAs have to be aware of the sensitivities of us losing our autonomy."

The National Governors' Council, which represents thousands of governors across the country, is currently consulting its members on the shake-up. Pat Petch, the council's chair, said it was important that the partnership espoused by Government became reality - "otherwise the word is just like a comfort-blanket, warm words that sound nice".

Governors are being asked what role they (separately from the head and staff) should play in setting, monitoring and evaluating targets. The NGC wants to know its members' views on home-school contracts and on whether heads should make annual reports on teacher performance to governors.

Its members are also being asked what they think about the new category of school devised by the Government, the allocation process and the role of governors and parents in making decisions whether or not to accept it.

NEW SCHOOL CATEGORIES

Ministers want to create a new framework of schools - community, aided and foundation - by next summer.

Every school will be allocated its category at the beginning of the next academic year and governors will be given until December 1998 to decide whether to accept it or not.

Schools that agree with the Department for Education and Employment's decision will be told to transfer by a set date (possibly April 1, 1999); those that do not will be expected to ballot parents.

WHERE SCHOOLS WOULD GO

Community - most local authoritycounty schools;

Foundation - voluntary controlled, grant-maintained (ex-voluntary-controlled, ex-county and new ones);

Aided - voluntary-aided, special agreement, grant-maintained (ex-voluntary aided, ex-special agreement and ex-independent).

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