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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
Tory schools U-turn claim
Graham Lane
Graham Lane says the policy is a "complete turn-around"
The Conservatives are "abandoning" their policy of giving schools freedom over pupil admissions, claims a local government leader.

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, says the Conservatives have performed "a complete turn-around" on their free schools policy by saying that local authorities would be entitled to force schools to take pupils, where no places had been offered.

John Dunford
John Dunford says that Conservative policy could leave thousands of pupils without places
But the Conservatives reject the claims - saying that such powers would only be employed in the most extreme circumstances and that schools would almost always take the final decision on admissions.

And they say the right of popular schools to expand to provide more places would reduce the number of disputes over admissions, making such local authority interventions even less likely to occur.

But Mr Lane, who is also a Labour councillor, says the free schools policy is becoming "increasingly incoherent".

Under the Conservatives' "free schools" plan, every school would be allowed to set its own rules on admission and selection - a policy which is a key element of the party's education policy at the next general election.

But in the wake of a school places dispute in Wellingborough, it has emerged that Conservative policy also means that local authorities would retain the right to over-rule schools over admissions.

Theresa May
Theresa May wants schools to have greater independence over admissions

The Conservatives say that local authorities would be obliged to ensure a school place for every child - a position already announced by party leader, William Hague.

But it has also now confirmed that in any "last resort" cases where a pupil was not admitted by any school - the local authority would have the power to over-rule individual schools and require them to take pupils.

This acceptance that local authorities would still play a key role in determining places is claimed by Mr Lane as a substantial shifting of ground by the Conservatives.

And he says that if this right to over-rule applied to all schools, it would give local authorities even more power than they have at present, where they have no control over "foundation schools".

Free market

Under the free schools policy, the Conservatives have called for schools to be given much more independence over admissions, staffing and salaries.

It would also mean a corresponding reduction in the role of local education authorities and the control of central government.

This free-market model is intended to encourage schools to respond more flexibly to the needs of local communities, with more popular and successful schools attracting more pupils and funding.

But there have been concerns that this will make the schools system much more complex for parents to negotiate - and head teachers' union leader John Dunford says that the free schools proposals are a "recipe for chaos".

Pupils without places

Mr Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says that "thousands" of pupils could be left without school places under the Conservatives' reforms of the admissions system.

He says that the dispute in Wellingborough shows how allowing schools to control admissions illustrates how this can lead to pupils being left without places.

The schools which have refused places to 20 pupils are "foundation" schools, which control their own admissions policies and which are outside the control of the local education authority.

Mr Dunford says that if this independence was extended to all state schools there could be a "widespread" problem of pupils without places.

But the Conservatives reject such claims as "complete nonsense", saying that there would still be assurances for parents that every child would be guaranteed a place, to be enforced by local education authorities.

And the Conservatives are angered that what they claim is an example of a Labour local authority's "mismanagement" of schools places is being used in an attack on their free schools policy.

The difficulties in Wellingborough were a "Labour-created problem", said a spokesman, caused by the closure of a school and the failure to provide sufficient places.

But looking beyond the specifics of the case in Wellingborough, head teachers' leader Mr Dunford said that admissions disputes were causing an increasing number of problems for schools.

The number of appeals against admissions decisions has risen sharply in recent years - and Mr Dunford says that many schools have to spend "substantial amounts of time" on the admissions and appeals processes.

See also:

23 Apr 01 | UK Education
22 Apr 01 | UK Education
23 Nov 99 | UK Education
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