It has been a long time since education really felt like it was at the top of the Government’s agenda. The issue which once seemed the defining issue of Coalition-era Conservatism only warranted a single page in Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.
But even so, the claim levelled by Fraser Nelson in his column last week is extraordinary.
For those of you without a Daily Telegraph subscription, here’s the precis: former education secretaries have been giving the Schools Bill a proper mauling in the House of Lords, because it contains a sweeping power-grab by the centre which threatens to undo all the good work on school autonomy since 2010.
Perhaps more explosively still, Nelson alleges that the reason for this is that Nadhim Zahawi and his team were simply not across the legislation when it was rushed out, allowing civil servants at the DfE to effect a “revenge of the Blob”.
The Education Secretary is widely perceived as one of the stronger members of the current Cabinet; he ranked second in our most recent League Table. If that were truly the grip he had over his own Department, that would not bode well.
So what is actually going on with the Schools Bill? The answer comes in two parts: the legislative side, and the ideological side.
Part 1) The Bill
The common thread running through every version of what happened with the Schools Bill is that Downing Street needed it to go in May – so it went in May, when perhaps it ought not to have done so.
According to Nelson, this meant that it was tabled before Zahawi and his team were properly across its provisions. Sources at the Education Department deny this, and offer if anything a stranger version of events. It goes like this.
There is apparently an internal review currently being carried out by the Department (its membership and terms of reference were not available) about the rationalisation of the regulations governing academies. The plan is that the final form of the Education Bill will enact, more or less, the recommendations of this review.
Yet given the parliamentary timetable, there was not time to have this review conclude before tabling the Schools Bill. Instead, the Secretary of State decided to run the two concurrently.
This meant that the Bill had to be drafted very broadly, which is a big reason it looks so much like a power grab by the centre. But apparently, the plan is what when the review reports, the Government itself will remove most of the objectionable provisions.
Suffice to say, this is an extremely unusual way to proceed with legislation, if indeed that is what happened.
But there are a few gaps in the story. For starters, sources closer to Downing Street report that they thought the Bill was ready to go, and have watched it catch fire on the launchpad with some bemusement.
Nor did anyone do any pitch-rolling with Lords Agnew, Baker, Nash, and the others causing trouble in the Upper House. Whilst Agnew and Nash are apparently now working with the Department to put things right, nobody was able to confirm whether or not this arrangement was in place before they savaged it in debate. One assumes not.
Finally, I wasn’t able to get an answer about what would happen in the event that the review didn’t conclude in time and the Department found itself getting the Schools Bill close to the finish line without having been told which bits to take out. That feels like something that should have been worked out.
Part 2) The Policy
So much for how the Bill is coming about. What is it actually doing? At one end of the debate, Nelson claims it is a betrayal of the entire free schools revolution. At the other, it’s merely a tidying-up exercise. Which is it?
As far as we can make out, it’s a bit of both.
The DfE insists that a huge range of the powers the Bill is allegedly ‘taking’ are in fact already exercised by the Secretary of State via the complex and somewhat haphazard arrangements which currently govern academies. The Bill merely moves a lot of these onto a statutory footing.
(However, they do concede that because officials have copied over headlines – “nature and quality of education,” “procedures and criteria for admission,” “suitability of staff” and “the spending of money” – and not the detailed contents, it does make the Bill appear much more sweeping than it is in reality.)
This isn’t an entirely neutral change – Lord Baker, the man behind University Technical Colleges, has raised concerns that it will make it harder for schools to assert their rights than it is under contract law. But it falls short of an “audacious, unannounced counter-reformation”.
Nonetheless, it would be false to describe the Bill as just a rationalisation or tidying-up exercise. There does seem to be an ideological gear-shift underway: towards standardisation.
This doesn’t mean uniformity; DfE sources insist that they intend only to ‘regulate against failure’, not ‘regulate for excellence’. But having allowed a thousand flowers to bloom under Gove, the idea now seems to be taking what has worked best and trying to apply it to the whole system.
Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are viewed as the best way of spreading excellence through the system, so the push is to rationalise the State’s relationship with MATs and regulate them as effectively as possible, including expanding the DfE’s capacity to intervene against trusts which are actually failing or in serious financial difficulty.
Viewed one way, this could be seen as a culmination of the original academy agenda. Zahawi certainly frames it that way.
But it is nonetheless seems to signal a shift away from the original vision of Conservative education reform, which placed a much greater emphasis on individual schools having the freedom to do their own thing.
This point was raised in the Lords, but also seems to have caused some division within the Department. Zahawi apparently blocked efforts to include provisions in the Schools Bill that would have compelled individual free schools or single-academy trusts (SATs) to join MATs.
But given the direction of travel, that feels like a stay of execution. It makes sense from the Department’s point of view – much easier to do business with a manageable number of national chains than a sprawling system of individual schools. The pressure to move against those will be continual, and not every Secretary of State will resist it.
For all that, however, this sort of active confusion is still preferable to further years of quiet drift. It is far better that Zahawi take an active approach to his brief than keep his head down and consign the Conservative education agenda to yet more years of quiet neglect.