1. Background

The 2022 Queen’s Speech included a government commitment to a Schools Bill to reform education. The government said the bill would “help every child fulfil their potential wherever they live, raising standards and improving the quality of schools”. It also said the bill would deliver “essential safeguarding measures to ensure that more children receive a suitable and safe education”. The background notes accompanying the speech explained this would be achieved through legislation on: the structure and regulation of academies; implementing a direct funding formula; the school attendance regime; a register for children not in school; an increase in Ofsted’s power to inspect non-registered schools; and strengthening the current teacher misconduct regime. Most of the commitments in the bill had been included in the government white paper on schools, ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’, published in March 2022.

2. Reaction to the bill

The bill, introduced in the House of Lords on 11 May 2022, included 69 clauses, of which 32 dealt with the regulation of academies and trusts. Many of the provisions in the bill would apply to England only.

Initial reaction to the bill was varied. The National Education Union (NEU) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) welcomed plans to introduce a register of children not in schools. The Local Government Association was positive about plans to increase the schools’ inspector Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools operating illegally, without registration. However, the NEU was critical of what it described as the bill’s “piecemeal and patchwork approach”. The NAHT noted that the government’s ambition to reform school structures outlined in the schools white paper was “likely to be controversial”.

3. Bill in parliament

Opening second reading on 23 May 2022, Education Minister Baroness Barran reiterated the government’s desire to “level up the school system” and “create a fairer and stronger system that works for every child”. Amongst other measures, the bill included provisions “seeking the power to deliver, for the first time, a coherent single set of regulations on academy standards.”

The second reading debate, and subsequent stages of the bill, included discussions about the wide range of topics found in the bill. However, some of the key issues raised at both second reading and at later stages concerned the government’s proposals on academies, and in particular academy standards.

Speaking for the Labour Party, Baroness Chapman of Darlington argued that the bill sought “to confer unprecedented powers on the education secretary” and argued that “this could be described as a power grab”.

Former Education Secretary Lord Baker of Dorking (Conservative) described the increase in powers to the secretary of state and the Department for Education as “unprecedented since 1870”, “sweeping” and “a real grab for power”. Another former education secretary, Baroness Morris of Yardley (Labour), noted “if we look down the list of powers that the secretary of state is taking for himself, we see that they cover absolutely everything—from governors to the length of the day, the term and the curriculum”. These concerns were shared by several other peers from across the House.

Concerns about the bill were also raised by the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Publishing its report on 26 May 2022, the committee expressed disquiet about “unsatisfactory” and “wide” delegated powers in the bill. It argued that the government’s reasons for the delegated powers were “wholly unconvincing” and “predictable and formulaic”. The committee was also critical of the use of ‘Henry VIII’ powers found in clause 3 of the bill.

Responding to further objections made by members at committee stage, Baroness Barran stated that the government recognised “the strength of feeling in the House”. She committed to “clarify and confirm the government’s position” when the bill returned at report stage. On 30 June 2022, Baroness Barran wrote to peers with an update about the bill:

It is right to highlight that concerns have been expressed across the House regarding the clarity of the policy intent underpinning the academy standards provisions, clauses 1–4, and schedule 1, and on the breadth of the delegated power in clause 1. In particular, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have recommended that both clause 1 and clause 3 should be removed from the bill.

The government has carefully considered the views of the House and as such intends to remove clauses 1–4 and schedule 1 from the bill […] There have also been concerns on the academy trust termination and intervention powers (clauses 5–18 and schedule 2). This concern is reflected in the amendments that have been tabled to oppose that these clauses and schedule 2 stand part of the bill. I can confirm that is also the government’s intention to support these amendments. The government will support these amendments at this stage and bring forward revised proposals in the House of Commons […] We will be using the regulatory and commissioning review, announced in March in the schools white paper and launched today, to develop revised clauses that address these concerns.

She confirmed the government’s intention to bring forward new proposals during committee stage in the House of Commons. The regulatory and commissioning review was launched on 29 June 2022 and is expected to conclude by December 2022. The review will examine: the expectations set for academy trusts; how these are measured and intervened against; and how this affects decisions about trust establishment, growth and mergers.

The government supported amendments to remove clauses 1–18 of the Schools Bill during the bill’s report stage on 12 July 2022. During report stage several peers expressed concern about the bill. Lord Cormack (Conservative) argued the bill had been “discredited” with “many holes”, while Lord Baker (Conservative) commented:

We are going to be asked to pass this bill to third reading but this House has never been asked in the past to pass a bill the guts of which have taken out. We have no idea what is going to be placed into the bill later in the House of Commons. This has simply not happened in our history and it is not the right way to behave.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Green Party) proposed that the “report not be received and that consideration of the bill not proceed at this time” as she did not consider the government was ready to proceed with the bill given the high turnover of ministers.

In contrast, Lord Addington (Liberal Democrat) said that the government had listened and “they have given more than I have ever seen a government give”. He argued that the bill should be given a report with the House having an opportunity to act at third reading if the bill was unacceptable. Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour-Co-op) agreed. Baroness Barran reassured the House that replacement clauses added in the Commons would receive “proper scrutiny” in the Lords with the rules of debate on ping pong relaxed and “sufficient time” given to discussions occurring during ping pong. Baroness Bennett decided not to test the opinion of the House.

4. What next?

At the time of writing the bill is still waiting for third reading. On 19 October 2022, the Times reported that the government would “abandon” the bill. The newspaper said:

The Times has been told that the government will abandon the schools bill tomorrow. It formed part of Johnson’s drive to have all schools join an academy trust by 2030 and also included the provision of a new register for children who are absent from schools and more powers for Ofsted, the school inspector.

Ministers had already been forced to scrap parts of the legislation after accusations of a Whitehall power grab that would have limited the freedom of academy schools.

It was also expected to become the focus of attempts by Conservative MPs to lift the ban on a new generation of grammar schools. Sir Graham Brady, a senior MP and longstanding champion of grammars, was expected to table an amendment to the legislation which would lift the ban.

5. Read more

Cover image by evening_tao on Freepik.