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Yes, Prime Minister, but how can we do it?

John Major's announcement of yet another opt-out drive has created new confusion over government policy.

Any large-scale expansion of the grant-maintained school sector is unlikely before the election. Speculation that the Prime Minister was insisting on new initiatives to encourage schools to opt out was quashed this week by his Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard.

In his first interview since the leadership contest, Mr Major extolled the benefits of GM status and made it clear he wanted all schools to become opted out. But despite the Prime Minister's enthusiasm, any further enticements to schools will only surface as Conservative manifesto proposals.

Mrs Shephard this week acknowledged that work was being done on ways of compelling all secondary schools to become grant-maintained, but she insisted that was being carried out in the context of drafting the election manifesto.

Sir Robert Balchin, the chief spokesman of the GM sector, however, has already said he wants to see ballots of parents scrapped as a means of making the process smoother.

Interviewed in The Times, Mr Major said:"The objective would be that all publicly-funded schools would be run as free self-governing schools, and to trust the headteachers, the teachers and the governing bodies of schools to see how we can give them more freedom to offer choice and diversity" .

This was taken as a promise of new measures to boost the opting- out movement, which was once in the vanguard of Government attempts to undermine Labour local education authorities but which has been flagging badly in the past 12 months. He also refused to rule out compulsion.

Downing Street would not talk in terms of a specific policy review and said: "The policy remains that the Government would like all schools to be grant maintained."

There are now slightly more than 1,000 schools in the GM sector, compared with 22,000 still under the control of local education authorities. Secondary schools, of which one in four are grant maintained, account for the great majority of those opting out.

The policy of allowing them to leave LEA control was devised in time for the 1987 general election campaign and gained the force of law in the 1988 Education Act. It had a major effect on councils who became anxious not to offend schools in case they opted out. Some significant closure programmes were cancelled as a consequence.

But the actual number of schools choosing this route has been a persistent disappointment to the Government. This is the more so as it is schools in low-spending Conservative authorities which have proved more likely to reject their LEA - six times more likely according to one study.

The Government's unease has not been helped by its persistent but unfulfilled predictions about the likely scale of opting out.

Mrs Thatcher, when Prime Minister, stated that "most schools" would become grant maintained. Opting out, she said, "would be as big as the one million transfer from the public sector into owner occupation (of housing)."

In more recent times, former Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced that his ambition was "to have every secondary school in the country grant-maintained" - in the lifetime of one parliament. While following the Conservative victory in the 1992 general election the new man John Patten claimed that "the floodgates will open".

Certainly the years after that saw a great leap from a total of 278 schools at the end of 1992 to 1,009 by the end of 1994. But to the Government's dismay that has now risen to only 1,060.

This is despite specific measures to boost the policy in the 1993 Education Act: Schools are now, for example, obliged to consider whether or not to opt out on an annual basis; the Secretary of State has been given powers to order a re-run of parental ballots if they are considered to be unfair; and private schools, including religious schools, are allowed to "opt in" to grant-maintained (that is, government-maintained) status. So far this has applied to only two.

It is also despite a recent publicity and charm offensive costing, according to Government figures, more than Pounds 3 million.

Major Labour gains in the 1993 county council elections seem to have contributed to the slowdown. The prospect of a Labour government may also be a factor.

According to Local Schools Information, an LEA-funded body which opposes opting out, the policy is failing on at least two levels.

First, says Sandra Mohamed, there was never the opposition to Labour councils among headteachers that the Conservative right-wing imagined. Most of those disposed to opt out have done so already. Then, she says, there is the practical fact that grant-maintained status no longer confers the financial benefits of previous years.

The first 29 schools between them received Pounds 5.7 million for capital projects which included a new sports complex and a sixth form block. Ninety-five per cent of new GM schools received capital grants in 1993-4. This fell to 50 per cent in 1994-5.

There is also the end of "double funding" - a system under which some local authorities effectively paid GM schools twice over to fund such central services as educational psychology and social work. This practice was described as unacceptable by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Things are however seen differently by Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, a government-funded body which promotes opting out. He claims that the main obstacle to further growth has been the political acrimony generated by parental ballots - which he believes should now be scrapped.

"As I see it the Government has three options. First it can leave the process as it is, perhaps increasing the amount of funding available for new GM schools. Second it can decide to drop the parental ballot. Third it could consider compulsion under some sort of rolling programme.

"I believe that we must get to the point where all LEA involvement in schools comes to an end. I believe that we will get to the point where all schools are self-governing. LEAs have been primarily responsible for the appalling performance of our schools in the past decades."

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