Academies bill passed amid acrimony

By Alex Stevenson

The coalition government has passed its first major piece of legislation through the Commons, reshaping the structure of Britain’s schools system in an acrimony-filled parliament.

MPs are outraged that education secretary Michael Gove chose to rush the bill without consultation, a green or white paper, or the normal length of scrutiny by the Commons.

Despite the criticisms the academies bill was passed by the Commons by 317 votes to 225.

It allows schools to become academies, freeing them of control by the local authority. Over 1,500 schools have expressed a desire to take the step since Mr Gove announced the policy last month, which will also allow them to set the terms and conditions for their staff and be responsible for their own admissions.

The haste with which the reforms were taken through the Commons has attracted condemnation from the left of British politics.

Shadow education secretary Ed Balls led the attacks for the opposition, saying Mr Gove’s disregard for the Commons was “contemptuous” and was “a matter for great shame for him”.

“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,” he told MPs.

“We fear that the bill will make things worse for our schools, our children’s futures and the cohesion of our communities.”

He and shadow schools minister Vernon Coaker defended Labour’s approach of the academies model, which concentrated on “areas of educational underperformance and social disadvantage”.

The coalition government’s approach “turns that on its head” by allowing schools which are doing well to become academies, Mr Coaker explained.

“I am not trying to be smart when I predict that individual members from across the House will have individual schools coming to them about problems with this process and the adverse consequences that it is having for their area, and that will be as a result of having rushed this legislation through,” he said.

Former Labour education secretary Estelle Morris joined the attack in a comment piece for the Guardian newspaper.

She wrote: “Any new government will want to stamp its mark on events and be seen to be getting on with things, but the boundary between that and arrogance is a fine line, and there is a feeling that the democratic process is being taken for granted.

“My argument isn’t that there are no answers, but that the government has stopped listening to the debate about what the answers might be.”

Earlier Liberal Democrat backbencher John Pugh, a former teacher, laid an amendment seeking to allow parents to be balloted on whether their school should become an academy if a school governor disagreed with the move.

“Changing the status of a school without allowing the parents of children at the school a decisive voice is extraordinarily hard to justify, especially given the discretionary and entirely unspecific nature of the consultation arrangements in the bill,” he insisted.

“The only motive that I can see for opposing my amendment… is a relative indifference to parental wishes.”

But schools minister Nick Gibb rejected the amendment, claiming it would place unnecessary burdens on the governing body of the school.

“Requiring a ballot of all parents of pupils at the school would unduly politicise the process and would enable those who are ideologically opposed to academies to agitate against the proposals or to try to delay the implementation of the decision,” he said.

Six Lib Dem MPs rebelled against the government by backing Dr Pugh’s amendment: Annette Brooke, Andrew George, Mike Hancock, John Leech and David Ward, as well as Dr Pugh himself.

Teachers’ union NASUWT is already laying the groundwork for the next stage of the fight against academies. General secretary Chris Keates warned yesterday schools could face a legal challenge if they cut corners on consultation with staff.

“It has been clear that the driver of the hasty decisions made by some schools to apply for academy status has been the belief that they will get more money as academies,” she warned.

“They should now pause and reflect on how much money defending legal challenges in the high court will cost, especially when, as academies, they will have no local authority to bail them out.”

The bill is expected to receive royal assent and become law later today.