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Schools Bill’s troubled passage through Parliament should give education sector pause for thought

Warwick Mansell · 27 July 2022

Education journalist Warwick Mansell wonders what will happen to the government’s Schools Bill, which is facing a tough and uncertain passage onto the statute books.

Where now for the Schools Bill? The draft legislation, which has been described as the most significant in relation to the school system since 2010, has had a torrid time in the House of Lords. It now faces delays and even a threatened boycott at its next stage by members of the upper house.

Where this leaves the bill’s provisions, particularly around the academies policy which ministers want to see embedded in every school in England within eight years, is anyone’s guess.

The bill as introduced into the Lords in May would have swept away much of the current system of academies regulation, with individual contracts between the government and academy trusts replaced by a structure in which what happens in these schools would have been laid down in blanket laws, applying to all.

The government’s idea was that it needed to move on from the more piecemeal regulatory arrangements which had grown up as the academies policy was developed at a micro level – there were only 203 academies by the time Labour left office in 2010 – to one which could be applied at the scale of more than 21,000 schools across England.

With ministers having pledged that all of these schools are to be within Multi-Academy Trusts by 2030 – currently, there are nearly 10,000 academies – the bill’s provisions were to be key to that drive.

Running into serious problems

However, as soon as the bill was first debated in the Lords in May, it was clear that there were serious problems. It was attacked by peers of all parties, but with criticism from the Conservative benches especially notable.

In particular, a three-pronged attack from former ministers – Lord Baker, Education Secretary under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and the more recent academies ministers Lord Nash and Lord Agnew, who themselves founded academy trusts – has proved devastating.

The three argued that the bill’s central regulatory provisions would have ended the academy policy’s key idea – the freedom it allowed trusts to run their own affairs as they saw fit – in favour of sweeping government powers to determine how the schools should be run, in any aspect of their operations.

Perhaps most tellingly, Lord Baker in particular argued that the legislative proposals had been put forward with little or no consultation with schools and trusts.

When the bill reached its latest stage in the Lords earlier this month, the government thus performed a spectacular u-turn. The first 18 proposed clauses of the draft legislation, concerning the new regulation system, were removed.

They will, however, now be redrafted following consultation and reintroduced in some form to the bill, during its passage through the Commons from the autumn.

This change of course, however, has already led to a delay in the bill’s schedule, with peers led by Lord Baker remaining extremely unhappy. The plan had been for the bill to finish its passage in the Lords last week, before heading to the Commons in September. But this would have meant peers being asked effectively to wave through quickly the now-radically-amended legislation.

So, instead, the government has announced a delay over the summer, with the final stage in the Lords, before the bill heads to the Commons, now taking place in September. Alongside this, a committee has been set up to advise ministers on the new relationship between the government and trusts.

Its findings will themselves feed into the revised regulation clauses. But that process could take until Christmas, with suggestions in the Lords last week that this will mean the new clauses will not emerge into the bill until perhaps next spring, with its passage through Parliament taking until perhaps next summer.

Boycott?

Meanwhile, according to last week’s debate, a threat by peers to boycott September’s next stage of the bill in the Lords, over the fact that they are being asked to approve draft legislation with its key clauses still a mystery, remains a possibility.

These setbacks come six years after the Department for Education had to abandon its last attempt at mass academisation. Then, a move as set out in a white paper by the-then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, which would have required all schools to have taken on the status, was ditched following a revolt, including by Conservative local authorities.

Surveying all of this, I cannot help sighing every time I hear it suggested that schools, or local authorities who are now being given the chance to form their own trusts, should jump at the chance to academise. The notion is that the political push towards a fully trust-led system is so strong, and the government’s plans so well-developed, that resistance is futile.

But if this constitutes a cleverly-thought-out plan, the government is camouflaging it very well. As ever, in my view schools and councils would be well-advised to be cautious before they jump into a system which is being presided over by the Department for Education in this manner.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist, who founded and writes for the investigative website Education Uncovered.

The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author as an independent contributor. They are not endorsed or necessarily shared by Prospect.


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