Education & Family

MPs pass law paving way for school shake-up in England

MPs have approved legislation which paves the way for a radical overhaul of the school system in England.

The Academies Bill, allowing schools to opt out of local council control as early as September, is now due to receive Royal Assent on Tuesday.

But Liberal Democrats joined Labour MPs in accusing the government of rushing through the legislation.

Six Lib Dem MPs voted for an opposition amendment calling for more time for consultation among parents.

This was the largest rebellion by Lib Dem MPs since the coalition's formation.

The rebels - whose amendment was defeated by 77 votes - were John Pugh, Annette Brooke, Andrew George, Mike Hancock, John Leech and David Ward.

Mr Pugh said the lack of consultation before a change of status was "indefensible nonsense".

"To change the status of a school without allowing the parents at the school a decisive voice is extraordinarily hard to justify," he added.

Despite their reservations, the government comfortably won a vote on the third reading of the bill with a majority of 92.

The bill must now go the Lords on Tuesday - the day day before the House of Lords breaks for the summer recess - before becoming law.

Funding changes

Earlier, shadow education secretary Ed Balls said the bill had been "rail-roaded" through Parliament with "no time for proper debate or scrutiny".

Labour echoed warnings by the NASUWT teachers' union that schools could face legal challenges if the consultation is not carried out correctly while Mr Hancock warned that it was "totally unacceptable" to appear to have limited time for debate on the changes both in Parliament and among parents.

But Education Minister Nick Gibb said that consultation could continue after approval for a change of status had been given.

"The consultation is not required to terminate by September, it can go on through the autumn until the funding agreement is signed," said Mr Gibb.

"So there is plenty of time both before the summer and after the summer for this important consultation to take place."

School independence

Ministers say that creating more of these independent state-funded schools will drive up standards by giving head teachers more control.

The changes will allow opted-out academies to keep the percentage of funding that otherwise would have been held by local education authorities.

As well as creating new academies, the law will pave the way for the other major plank of the government's education reforms - "free schools" being set up by parents, teachers and other groups.

The first wave of opting out schools are expected to become academies in September.

About 2,000 have registered an interest in academy status, the government says, but Mr Gibb resisted questions asking how many schools were now set to become academies.

The Anti-Academies Alliance, a campaign group, says it is aware of 35 schools that have begun the process to become academies by September.

In the debate, Mr Gibb suggested that schools might have been approved for academy status in September, without the process being completed.

Mr Coaker said this marked a "retreat" from ambitions to have schools re-opening as academies in September.

The first schools to change will have been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted inspectors, as top-rated schools are being fast-tracked.

While the academy programme under Labour was based on improving underachieving schools, the coalition government's proposals are focused on giving autonomy to the most successful schools.

Academy schools will be:

  • Funded by central government rather than through the local council
  • Free to set their own curriculum as long as it is "broad and balanced"
  • Responsible for their own admissions, but bound by the Admissions Code
  • Able to set terms and conditions for teachers and other staff
  • Receiving money previously spent on their behalf by councils for services such as those for children with special needs or excluded from school

Free schools will also be set up as academies, in that they will have the same type of agreement or contract with the government.

The legislation removes the current legal requirement for local councils to be consulted when parents or other groups want to set up a school - something some groups had said was a block to their plans.

Councils argue that they need to take an overview of school provision.

'Democratically accountable'

Critics say the changes will fragment the state system and favour schools in the most advantaged areas.

They have complained that the Academies Bill was being rushed through parliament.

Image caption Schools could begin opting out of council control by September

The government says it is fulfilling a manifesto commitment in passing the law now and that there has been ample time for it to be considered.

The National Union of Teachers says the legislation is an "attack on the very existence of democratically accountable, free state comprehensive education" and that more time for debate should have been allowed.

Clauses have also been added enshrining the equal rights of pupils with special educational needs and requiring academies to submit to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

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