Academies act

Status of the bill: Enacted

Main purpose of the bill:

To enable many more schools to become academies in order to provide schools with "the freedoms to deliver an excellent education in the way they see fit".

Main points of the bill

*Enables all maintained schools to apply to become an academy, with all schools judged 'outstanding' by Ofsted to be approved unless there are good reasons not to do so.

*Controversy

One of the more contentious and complex pieces of legislation, the Academies Bill attracted a huge amount of controversy, negative press coverage and considerable criticism, in particular from the teaching unions and Labour MPs. But despite the many objections raised, the bill was passed in the Commons by 317 votes to 225 - a majority of 92.

The fact that the bill was rushed through parliament before the summer recess, without a green or white paper, and a reduced time for scrutiny was widely criticised. The shadow education secretary, Ed Balls, said to rush the bill through in this way was "a complete abuse of Parliament." He claimed the "flawed and rushed" provisions in the bill "risk ripping apart the community-based comprehensive education system that we have built in this country over decades."

But Schools Minister Nick Gibb dismissed claims of a full-scale assault on comprehensive education as "ludicrous", saying "we believe in comprehensive education and are committed to it, and the bill will strengthen it." And the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, defended the bill's speedy passage. "We cannot afford to wait," he said "We cannot afford Labour's failed approach any more, with teachers directed from the centre, regulations stifling innovation and our country falling behind other nations. We need reform and we need it now. We need the bill."

However, the unions disagreed and embarked on a vigorous campaign against academies. In a joint letter to The Times, the general secretaries of the NUT, NASUWT, ATL and of UNISON, warned the Education Secretary that he "ignores at his peril" the views of more than 800,000 teachers and support staff. The unions said independent evidence had shown that academy schools "do not deliver better educational outcomes for pupils; they cost more money and create widespread inequality and social segregation." And they warned: "State education isn't yet broken, but it will be if this policy goes ahead."

The three teaching unions also wrote a joint letter to the chairs of governing bodies and to head teachers, expressing their common belief that "academy status would bring neither you nor your school greater freedom, nor reduced bureaucracy, nor any long-term financial advantages."

But the National Association of Head Teachers said it would support members who chose the academy option. "We believe that the decision to become an academy belongs to the individual governing body and head teacher in consultation with the staff and community. Indeed we believe this choice should be available to all schools who think it is right for them, not just those defined as outstanding, which risks perception of elitism," the NAHT stated. "School leaders welcome greater freedom and will choose to use such freedom in a co-operative socially responsible manner retaining their belief in education as a proud public endeavour."

And in his final summing up, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told the Commons that the bill was the first step in the coalition's "ambitious plans" to raise standards in all schools. "We want a teaching profession with renewed morale and confidence, no longer struggling under the yoke of monthly government initiatives and ever-demanding bureaucratic requirements," he said. "The bill is about trusting the professionalism of teachers and head teachers. It is about innovation and excellence, about giving parents a genuine choice and children the opportunity for a better future."

*Allows maintained primary and special schools to apply to become an academy in their own right for the first time.

*Controversy

Concerns were raised in both Houses about the implications for children with special educational needs and looked-after children, particularly in relation to admissions policy and funding arrangements.

Baroness Morgan sought an assurance that the admissions code would continue to give priority to children in care. Lord Rix, president of Mencap, wanted confirmation that the bill would not be used as an opportunity to deny disabled children access to mainstream education in an academy if that was their wish. "At their best, local schools can be innovative and responsive to local community goals," he said. "At their worst, they will exclude students who make teaching too much of a challenge and who are traditionally excluded, thus perpetuating established inequalities and resigning us to a permanent underclass that is regarded as a worthless burden on the state."

In response Lord Hill, parliamentary under secretary for Education, assured peers that academy funding agreements would require academies to have regard to the SEN code of practice in the same way as maintained schools. "Local authorities will retain responsibility for pupil SEN assessments, statementing, funding of statemented pupils, ensuring that arrangements are in place for statemented pupils, and the monitoring of statemented pupils. Academies will have to ensure fair access and deliver provision," he said.

Lord Hill also assured peers that the academy funding agreements will require academies to comply with the school admissions code and law, as with all maintained schools, noting that "the code and related legislation outlaw additional selection and require the highest priority to be given to looked-after children."

And in the Commons, Schools Minister Nick Gibb confirmed that amendments to the bill had given children with special educational needs greater rights to admission to academies than existed in previous academies legislation, and that new requirements for funding for low-incidence special needs had been added.

*Removes the requirement for local authorities to be consulted before applying to become an academy.

*Controversy

The NASUWT was one of several organisations to raise concerns about an apparently diminishing role for local authorities. The union said it was "staggering that a government that is committed to community empowerment is now seeking to disenfranchise democratically elected local councils who represent local people and deny them any say when proposals come forward to open new academy schools."

But Lord Hill told peers that the bill was "not an attack on the role of local authorities" and that "strong local authorities will remain central to the Government's plans to improve education". His words were echoed in the Commons by Schools Minister Nick Gibb who said: "We see a new and stronger role for local authorities emerging over the years as champions of parents and pupils, challenging rather than defending underperforming schools."

The Local Government Association said it was looking forward to working with the Secretary of State on the Ministerial Advisory Panel "to clarify exactly what this role will mean in practice for pupils, parents, schools and local communities." The LGA said it would like to see a commissioning role for local councils within the selection process and also for local councils to be named as a body which the school's governing body must consult with," to ensure a genuine local accountability."

*Requires the consent of any existing foundation (mainly churches) before a school applies to become an academy. Schools with a religious character will keep that religious character upon conversion to academy status.

*Controversy

The Bishop of Lincoln said the Church of England welcomed the provisions in the bill for the automatic transfer of religious character. According to the Bishop there are currently no fewer than 34,000 children, "all in areas of significant social deprivation," being educated in Church of England-sponsored academies. "The question of what determines the religious character of the school is key," he said. "Ethos, values, and curriculum design will all be of critical significance."

However, the British Humanist Association was concerned that the bill "risks permanently entrenching religious segregation in the school system." BHA head of public affairs Naomi Phillips said: "The reality is that new religious academies will be able to discriminate against children and staff on religious grounds, excluding those of the 'wrong' or no religion. It will prevent many existing 'faith schools' from ever becoming inclusive and could expose children to extreme religious views, including creationism."

Education Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged there were concerns about religious education and also sex and relationship education (SRE). He told the Commons the government would address both these issues as part of the curriculum review later this year.

Allows schools which apply to become Academies to keep any surplus balance they hold.

*Deems academy trusts to be exempt charities.

*Controversy

Lord Hill explained that the reason for giving academies automatic charitable status was that it would remove the need for each academy to apply individually and thus reduce the burden on schools applying to be academies. He also noted that it would "make academies consistent with voluntary and foundation schools, which are already deemed charities in law and will shortly be exempt charities."

However, the NASUWT suggested that the government's proposal for new academy schools to become exempt charities was "a naked attempt to provide a further tax loophole for private sponsors."

Permits the Secretary of State to make a property transfer scheme to transfer to the academy the property, rights or liabilities of a maintained school.

*Requires the Secretary of State when deciding whether to enter into academy arrangements in relation to an additional (free) school, to take into account the impact of the additional school on existing maintained schools, academies and FE institutions in the area. (This clause was added to the bill at Third Reading in the Lords.)

*Requires any promoter of an additional (free) school to consult those they think appropriate on the question of whether the arrangements should be entered into. (This clause was added to the bill at Third Reading in the Lords.)

*Controversy

The teaching unions remain strongly opposed to, and concerned about, what they see as an attack on state education. NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Legislation to create many more academies and the new so called "free schools" is an attack on the very existence of free, state comprehensive education which is democratically accountable. It is privatisation on a grand scale and is unacceptable."

The NASUWT agreed saying: "Questions must be asked as to why the Government is refusing to heed the wealth of warnings and international evidence that confirm that academies and free schools are a recipe for educational inequality and social segregation........Given the imperative to tackle the budget deficit, the Academies Bill represents a costly and unnecessary solution to a problem that simply does not exist."

Requires the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on all academy arrangements and performance during the year. The report must be laid before Parliament. (This clause was added to the bill at Third Reading in the Lords.)

NB Freedom of Information:
During the Lords Second Reading debate, Lord Lucas argued that academies should be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. The Government subsequently introduced an amendment at Report Stage to add academies to the list of public bodies, persons or office holders covered by the FOI Act so that academies must comply with the requirements of FOI.

Progress of the bill:

The Academies Bill was included in the Queen's Speech on 25th May 2010.

Lords:
First Reading: 26.05.10 Second Reading: 07.06.10 Committee Stage: 21.06.10 23.06.10 28.06.10 Report Stage: 06.07.10 07.07.10 Third Reading: 13.07.10

Commons:
First Reading: 13.07.10 Second Reading: 19.07.10 Committee Stage: 21.07.10 22.07.10 26.07.10 Third Reading: 26.07.10
PP: 27.07.10 Royal Assent: 27.07.10

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