Nadhim Zahawi U-turns on ‘enormous grab for power’ over schools

·2 min read
Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi

Plans to give civil servants more control over schools are to be abandoned after Nadhim Zahawi ordered a U-turn on the Government’s flagship education reforms.

Ministers are set to scrap large chunks of the Schools Bill following a rebellion in the House of Lords by several Tory peers, including three former education ministers.

The Education Secretary approved legislation designed to pave the way for every school to become part of an academy trust outside the direct control of Whitehall and local authorities.

But the Bill came under fire from members of the Lords, who said that far from giving schools greater freedoms, it will allow officials in the Department for Education to micromanage academies across the country.

These include giving officials the powers to intervene in the running of academies in areas including procedures and criteria for admission, the suitability of staff, spending and what is taught beyond the national curriculum.

Critics across the political divide

The critics included Lord Agnew of Oulton and Lord Nash, the former Conservative schools ministers, as well as Lord Adonis, the Labour peer who pioneered the academy programme.

Lord Baker of Dorking, who was education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, described it as an “enormous grab for power by Whitehall”, saying it was “quite amazing” that ministers had agreed to provisions written into the Bill.

On Wednesday, ministers were preparing to either accept the amendment put forward by Lord Nash and Lord Agnew, or add in their own amendment along similar lines.

A government source denied that Mr Zahawi was bounced into axing large chunks of the Bill, adding that he was thinking of making the changes anyway.

Officials at the Department for Education admitted that the Bill “could have been drafted better”.

'Major climb-down'

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, accused the Government of presiding over “utter chaos”.

She said that if the Government's changes went ahead, it represented a “major climb-down” by Mr Zahawi.

Ms Phillipson added: “Serious questions have to be asked about how within weeks of publishing his first Bill as Education Secretary, he's now been forced to rip up his own plans.

"The Conservatives' proposals show none of the ambition needed to drive up standards in schools, ensure every child can bounce back from the pandemic and deliver the broad education young people need.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We remain committed to the Schools Bill putting clear academy trust standards on a legal footing, and allowing for the Government to intervene directly in the rare cases of academy trust failure.

"We are listening to concerns from peers about how the provisions in the Bill would operate in practice, and will shortly set out how we will continue to work towards our objectives, while addressing these concerns.”