Education & Family

'Ample time' for Academies Bill, says Michael Gove

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Media captionEducation Secretary Michael Gove said the legislation would "inject a new level of dynamism'' into the system

The education secretary has rejected claims by Labour that the government is rushing legislation on major reforms to England's school system.

Michael Gove said there was "ample time" for scrutiny of the Academies Bill, which will allow many schools to opt out of local council control.

Ministers want it passed by next week so some schools can become academies by September.

The Tory chair of the education select committee has also said it is rushed.

MPs are debating the plans which could become law in just over a week.

The government has taken the unusual step of compressing the parliamentary process by taking what is known as the "committee stage" - where a panel of MPs scrutinises a bill - in the Commons.

Labour says such a compressed process is usually reserved for anti-terror laws and constitutional matters.

It means MPs will get just five hours to debate the proposed laws.

The government comfortably survived a Labour challenge to the plans in the Commons on Monday evening.

A Labour amendment saying the bill should not be given a second reading was defeated by 333 votes to 234, a government majority of 99.

'Extensive debate'

Under the proposed legislation, all schools will be allowed to apply to opt out of local authority control and become independent academies, directly funded by central government. But priority will be given to schools rated outstanding by Ofsted.

This would give them greater freedom over the curriculum and teachers' pay, as well as access to extra funds normally used by local authorities on the services they provide.

Mr Gove told the BBC's Today programme that there had been "extensive debate" on the issue over the past five years and during the general election campaign, in which the academies programme was a central manifesto pledge.

"Rushed laws can be bad laws," he said, "but if you've had people who've been waiting for five years, if you have, as we have, hundreds of schools who are anxious to take advantage of these proposals, then it is understandable that you want to honour a manifesto commitment."

Setting out his plans, Mr Gove told MPs his legislation would "inject a new level of dynamism into the programme that's been known to raise standards for all children, the disadvantaged most of all."

He added that all the evidence suggested the greater degree of autonomy and freedom that the bill would introduced yields results for all pupils.

Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the education select committee, questioned the plan to fast-track the bill.

"If few [schools] actually do convert, the rushed legislative process will be hard to justify," he said.

"But if, on the other hand, large numbers move then inevitably people will ask whether sufficient consideration has been given to the system-wide impact of this on things like support for children with special needs.

"The secretary of state needs to explain why he felt that normal processes of scrutiny were being short-cut and I will be interested to hear his explanation. Members would expect a pretty overwhelming argument before that sort of thing occurred."

The former education secretary and Labour leadership contender Ed Balls said a "deeply flawed" piece of legislation was being rushed through in an undemocratic fashion.

"I cannot remember a time when a major reform of public services was rushed through Parliament in a way that's only normally done for emergencies like anti-terrorism legislation," he said.

And during the debate he said the bill would "rip apart the community-based comprehensive education system" that had been built over the last 60 years.

But the Department for Education said Labour had used the same method to push through legislation to scrap subsidised places at independent schools in 1997.

'Damage to education system'

It said the Academies Bill had already had 22 hours of committee debate in the House of Lords, and another nine hours of report debate.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it was "extremely difficult" to see the justification for fast-tracking the bill.

Unless it was "significantly amended," she said, it would "damage the whole education service".

Fifteen hundred schools have expressed an interest in becoming academies.

Those wishing to convert this September had to apply formally by 30 June and officials have been deciding which have the green light to go ahead, legislation permitting.

Some schools have already been told whether they will be in the first tranche to convert and others should find out shortly.

Lorraine Heath, head teacher of a school in Taunton, said it was really important for schools to know where they were going to be in September.

She said the extra resources that come with academy status would help schools make their own plans to deal with budget cuts.

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