Plenty to ponder for seekers of status

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Ministers might hope that staffrooms will be alight with talk of standards next term, but the more likely topic for teachers is what status their school will choose.

As details of the Government plans emerged in a technical paper published this week, it became clear they would distract from the "standards not structure" mantra. Schools will have to choose one of three new categories - community, aided or foundation - although they will be told which the Government would prefer.

The technical paper also reveals that the Government's pledge to cut class sizes 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.

Far from signalling the end of the grant-maintained sector the technical paper, which puts the flesh on the bones of the Excellence in Schools White Paper, appears to strengthen the autonomous sector.

Independent schools will be able to opt in to the state sector and opted-out schools will be able to link up, keeping a collective arm's length away from the local authority.

The paper does away with the financial privileges that the 1,100 GM schools enjoyed, but foundation status would allow them to remain separate.

It pledges to repeal the pay and conditions legislation which allows GM schools to opt out of national agreements. However, it says that the two schools which have already abandoned the national scheme (one being the London Oratory attended by Tony Blair's son Euan) can carry on doing what they like, but if they change back, existing staff's pay will be safeguarded.

The technical paper unexpectedly unveils plans to extend the foundation category. Ministers suggest families of schools could get together to form group foundations - an option which they acknowledge would be attractive to ex-county GM schools.

The idea is likely to be popular where schools and local authorities have battled over GM status. Heads and governors are likely to see it as the "safety in numbers" option. It could, however, involve sacrifices - of assets or funding - for the greater good of the group foundation.

The Government envisages 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 aided category. All special schools, whether GM or not, would become community special schools.

Ministers will allocate a category to a school, issue guidance to governors by September with a deadline of December for them to make a decision.

Schools that agree with the department'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.

Parents can disagree with governors and if 20 per cent of them sign a petition a ballot should be held.

Where more than 50 per cent of parents vote and more than half of those voting choose a different category to that preferred by governors the decision would be made by the Secretary of State.

Independent schools could enter the state sector by becoming aided and new aided schools could be begun by churches or other groups.

It is unclear from the technical paper what will happen to the Funding Agency for Schools, the quango which administers GM sector finance. The new chairman appointed this week (see page 6) has a two-year contract.

The paper proposes to give parents a greater role, using more of them as governors and giving them seats with voting rights on a local authority's education committee.

Ministers plan to lay down in legislation and regulations the powers, duties and functions of governing bodies, doing away with a school's articles of government. Heads in all schools will be governors - at present they can choose not to be, except in GM schools.

And, in a separate letter sent to heads and governors of grammar schools, they make their stance on selection clear - "there should be no return to the 11-plus and no new grammar schools".

The Government has pledged to end partial selection, but says the fate of the 163 grammar schools will rest in the hands of parents - possibly all those with children in local schools or at feeder primaries.

Consultation on the Framework for the Organisation of Schools: Technical Consultation Paper closes October 7. Comments should be sent to Paul Day, School Framework Division, Area 3F, DFEE, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT.

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