Ministers have announced a U-turn on key elements of the government’s schools bill, scrapping or amending clauses that would have given the Department for Education (DfE) greater control over “virtually every aspect” of academy trusts in England.
The schools bill, launched by Nadhim Zahawi, has run into opposition from Conservative and crossbench peers for giving the education secretary a veto over appointments of school trustees, the power to rescind funding agreements and even determine the length of the school day within each trust.
Kenneth Baker, the former Tory education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, had attacked the bill’s provisions in the Lords, saying “it increases the powers of the secretary of state and the DfE in a way unprecedented since 1870”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are listening to concerns from peers about how the provisions in the bill would operate in practice, and will make sure the bill protects and strengthens the fundamental freedoms academies enjoy.
“That is why we are supporting the temporary removal of clauses 1-18 from the bill, in advance of bringing back revised clauses later in the bill’s passage through parliament.”
But Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said Zahawi “has ripped up his own plans and is back to the drawing board with his very first piece of primary legislation”.
The bill aims to have all England’s state schools join multi-academy trusts by 2030 and sought to impose greater direct authority over how the trusts operate. Currently DfE powers are limited by the legislative framework established under Michael Gove as education secretary.
Critics said many of the clauses were vague and open to abuse, with former schools ministers in the Lords complaining that the bill was poorly drafted.
Among the clauses being amended are those that would have given the DfE powers to intervene in a trust’s admissions criteria, spending and course content.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the bill would have affected “virtually every aspect of the running of academies”.
“It was a ridiculous attempt to centralise power in Whitehall over matters which are obviously much better decided by professional educators who know the needs of their schools and their pupils,” Barton said.
In a letter to the Lords announcing the climbdown, Zahawi said the bill’s first four clauses dealing with operating standards of academy trusts would be scrapped, and that the government would accept amendments proposed by peers changing a further 12 clauses.
“Whilst taking the time to get these measures right is clearly the right way forward, the government is also clear that these measures are essential to secure the path to a system in which all schools can benefit from being part of strong multi-academy trusts,” Zahawi said.
Phillipson said that when she questioned Zahawi in parliament about problems with the bill, “he seemed immensely confident. In fact, he asked me to join him on a journey. Turns out, the journey was a U-turn.”
The DfE insisted “the current regulatory system must evolve to retain parents’ confidence and make sure every school in every trust is helping their pupils fulfil their potential”, adding: “We therefore remain committed to the schools bill putting clear academy trust standards on a legal footing, and allowing for the government to intervene directly in the rare cases of academy trust failure.”