The Schools Bill: Should we be worried?

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

I think they should be watched.”

This was the extraordinary warning this week from a former secretary of state for education, Lord Baker. In the House of Lords, he urged us all to keep a vigilant eye on a place he knows all too well - the Department for Education.

You must remember that the DfE since 1870 has never run a school. Now they’re going to take complete control over the education system”. The new Schools Bill is, he said, “a real grab for power” by them.

His fellow former ministers from Conservative and Labour governments joined him to express their misgivings about the recently published bill. 

Lord Knight, a schools minister in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown described the bill as “jaw-dropping”. It made, he said, “the secretary of state effectively the chief education officer for 25,000 schools.”

The Department for Education itself, on the other hand, insists that the proposals in the Bill merely consolidate and simplify requirements on academy trusts which are currently spread across numerous ‘instruments’ – funding agreements, legislation, the Academy Trust Handbook. 

The new approach, it says, will introduce a ‘common rulebook’ which will set out the requirements on academy trusts that is more clear, consistent and transparent and prepare the ground for the fully trust-led system envisaged in the recent white paper. And any amendment to these powers would have to come back before Parliament. 

So, who is right, and should we be worried?

The object of concern crops up at the very start of the Schools Bill where we are told: “The following are examples of matters about which standards may be set” followed by a list of 20 powers that include the curriculum, the length of the school day, the handling of complaints and the procedures for admission.

Taken individually, there will be different views about the merits or otherwise of the government holding each of these powers. But taken collectively, there can be little doubt that it is a very extensive list indeed, particularly as the opening line of this section describes these only as examples, thus leaving the room open for additional powers in the future.

And even if this is a consolidation and simplification of existing powers which are scattered around in various other documents, it needs to be remembered that they will now be enshrined in primary legislation. 

You may or may not trust the current government with these powers. Those of a sceptical disposition may have fresh in their minds the debacle in which the Department for Education and then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened schools with legal action to prevent them shifting to remote education amidst spiralling Covid infection rates at the end of a fraught term during the pandemic. But even if that does not colour your view and you think that the current government can be trusted not to use this extensive list of powers to boss schools around, future governments may be less squeamish about doing so. 

The counter-argument is that democratically-elected governments have every right to tell publicly-funded schools what they should and should not be doing. And that is, of course, true to a certain point. The question is where that point should be set.

To my mind, the problem comes when governments want to involve themselves in operational decisions that are better left to the trained professionals who run schools and colleges. We’ve seen various examples of that in recent times with pronouncements on issues like mobile phone policies, behaviour and moving all schools to a 32.5-hour week regardless of context or how they structure their timetables.

With the best will in the world, neither the politicians nor civil servants in Whitehall know how to run schools. As George Tomlinson, Clement Attlee’s minister of education in the late 1940s, elegantly declared: “Minister knows nowt about curriculum”.

It was a welcome moment of ministerial self-awareness.

Nowadays, politicians are generally in and out of the Department for Education at such a rate of knots that they hardly have time to find out where the toilets are located, much less gain an in-depth knowledge of the education system.

So, they really are not the best people to be deciding the minutiae of what happens on the ground. That is your job – the leaders of our schools and colleges – for which you have spent your entire careers preparing and training and learning. 

You, frankly, are likely to make much better decisions for your students than politicians and civil servants in remote government departments. I am pretty sure the public would agree with that sentiment. The government should be focusing on the big picture – strategic direction and how to support you in your work.

All of which still leaves us with an unanswered question. 

Is the list of powers in the Schools Bill a green light for more government meddling, and should we be worried? 

I guess the answer to the first part of that question depends on how the Bill is used in practice – by this and future governments. 

But at a time when our trust in politicians is – sadly – at rock bottom, it seems to former education secretaries and me that the new Schools Bill opens a door to much greater powers at the centre – to people who have rarely set foot in a school or college, let alone run one, for that ‘power grab’ described by Lord Baker. 

Once that door is opened, it is difficult to believe that such potential powers will never be used. 

And so, as the Schools Bill winds its way through the parliamentary labyrinth, should we be worried by all of this? 

I’m afraid the stark answer is simple. Yes, we should.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 27/05/2022 08:45:55