Troubled life comes to a sudden end

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Life under Labour is tough for some in the grant-maintained sector. Geraldine Hackett reports

A clear sign of a new order in Government is the swift winding up of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation.

The final tranche of the Pounds 5 million in public money paid to the foundation and its predecessor to provide services and information to GM schools runs out at the end of this month.

For the past three years, the foundation has received an annual grant from the Department for Education and Employment of around Pounds 800,000. This works out at about Pounds 10,000 per school that opted out from the date the foundation was set up.

Unfortunately for the foundation, its birth coincided with the decline of the GM sector. Of the 1,200 GM schools that exist, only about 250 took that route after April 1994.

Most of the foundation's grant went on the salaries of its 22 staff. However, the foundation does not publish a breakdown of its spending because it was set up as a small private company limited by guarantee and does not have to submit detailed accounts to Companies House.

The company was funded through Government regulations that allow the DFEE to give grants to organisations that provide specific education services.

The complex - not to say labyrinthine - history of the foundation is tied to the problems the Conservatives had in promoting opting out. The Labour Opposition claimed civil servants should not provide advice on a policy that was politically controversial.

The first body to be grant-aided was the Grant Maintained Schools Trust, which was refused charitable status by the Charity Commissioners. In response to Labour criti-cism, the trust ceased being funded by the government and a privately- funded company, Choice in Education, was created to act as a presssure group and deal with the business of promoting opting out.

Services for GM schools were then provided by the Grant Maintained Schools Centre which was given a government grant. The centre's books and records were inspected by the National Audit Office.

In 1994, following an internal audit by the DFEE; an unpublished report by the consultants Coopers and Lybrand, and questions in the House from Stephen Byers, then an Opposition MP and now ministers for standards, the Conservative government transferred funding to a new company, the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation.

This move was criticised by Labour partly because Sir Robert Balchin, a Tory party regional chairman, was appointed as the foundation's unpaid chairman. He was and is a director of the Grant Maintained Schools Centre, which now provides services to GM schools on a commercial basis. He is also one of the trustees of a later charity also given the same name, the Grant Maintained Schools Trust.

The other key foundation appointment was also seen as political. Andrew Turner, then a local Tory councillor, and a prospective Conservative candidate at the last election, was made chief executive. Mr Turner had been previously been employed by Choice in Education. Details of his salary are not published, but he is believed to have earned about Pounds 35,000.

The foundation is allowed to decide - within its budget - how many staff to employ and what pay and benefits they should receive. The NAO has not exercised its right to inspect the foundation's books.

The foundation's time is now nearly up. Sir Robert said: "The grant-maintained policy was a unique one for the Conservatives because it required a referendum of parents every time it operated. And it was because of that issue that the Government decided the foundation should not be a public body but a non-profit company. " Mr Byers announced last week that funding due to have gone to the foundation this year would be used to pay for summer literacy camps.

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