Last month, we had a look at the curious case of the Schools Bill. After coming under fire for signing off on legislation which threatened to undo two decades of movement towards greater school autonomy, sources at the Department for Education indicated that the Government’s intention was always to gut its own Bill.
There was no indication at the time that they intended to do this just two weeks later; nor was it probably the plan to end up with papers such as the Daily Telegraph running headlines about u-turns.
But after a revolt in the House of Lords which saw a coalition of peers with Education experience table a slew of amendments to gut the top of the Bill, there probably wasn’t much choice. As a result, the Government is apparently planning to support the move and excise the first 18 clauses of their own Bill.
(When the story first broke, Department sources suggested that Lord Agnew and Lord Nash were cooperating on overhauling the Bill. Yet both co-sponsored all the amendments tabled by Lord Baker, removing Clauses 5-18.)
Baroness Barran, in a letter to all peers explaining the decision, says that the Government will table new clauses when the legislation returns to the House of Commons, and these will be “more tightly defined”; DfE sources say they will be focused on issues such as safeguarding and financial propriety, rather than the sweeping powers over staff, admissions, and the curriculum contained in the original proposals.
Furthermore, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, yesterday also saw the official launch of the review “to future proof role of academy trusts“. Chaired by Barran, its findings will be used to help draft the revised clauses which will be put to MPs.
This was always a strange feature of the original story. The official version of events was that the Bill was drafted as widely as it was because it was always meant to be based on this review’s findings – it’s just the tight parliamentary timetable meant the legislation had to be launched before those findings were delivered.
Yet two weeks ago there didn’t seem to be any sort of timeline for when the review would report, nor a contingency plan in place for what would happen if this extraordinarily powerful Bill, theoretically a placeholder, cleared its various parliamentary hurdles before the findings were in.
Things on that front at least are now much clearer. If the Government wants to have a functional piece of legislation to present to the House of Commons in the autumn, it will need the evidence from which to draw the new clauses by then.
Officials at the DfE have apparently been tasked with coming up with a proper delivery timetable, which is welcome, although perhaps ought to have been done at the beginning.
There is much about this story which ought to be concerning to the Government; it is more evidence that an over-stuffed legislative timetable often means poorer legislation, and another reminder of how easily entrenched official attitudes can assert themselves when politicians take their eyes off the ball.
But from the perspective of education policy, there is also a sunnier side. The revolt on the red benches saw Conservative and Labour peers working together in defence of a common project. And more besides: Lord Judge, who tabled three of the amendments and was described by one involved as “hero of the hour”, is Convenor of the Crossbench Peers.
This is a welcome reminder of the real value of the House of Lords – it’s hard to imagine a bunch of professional also-rans doing such work in a Senate. But it also shows the breadth of the coalition that has built up, on the political side at least, behind the school reform agenda.
Given that the longevity of any reform owes much to how much buy-in there is from the Opposition, that bodes well for the project’s long-term prospects. Provided everyone keeps their eyes on the officials, that is.