July 19, 2010 8:27 pm

Gove shrugs off attacks on schools reform

Michael Gove insisted on Monday there was “ample time” to debate coalition legislation on schools reform, as he brushed off attacks for “railroading” laws to permit scores of new academies to open in September.

The education secretary faced a barrage of criticism over compressing the Commons debate of the academies bill into less than a week – a rare manoeuvre for such a significant piece of legislation.

The bill will radically expand the number of schools eligible to become an academy, a model of state-funded independent schools, free from local authority control, that was designed to turn round poorly performing institutions. Under Mr Gove’s plans, local authorities will be stripped of powers so that schools rated “outstanding” by school inspectors can automatically become an academy, winning more freedom over curriculum, admissions and teachers’ pay.

This will change the nature of the academies programme by allowing a cadre of high-performing schools, most of which are in more affluent areas, to become academies.

Mr Gove, who has suffered a torrid political fortnight over a botched announcement of schools building cuts, said the timetable merely reflected the “urgent need” for the reforms demanded by parents and teachers.

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“[The bill] grants greater autonomy to individual schools, it gives more freedom for teachers and it injects a new level of dynamism into a programme that has been proven to raise standards for all children and the disadvantaged most of all.”

Education insiders – and some Blairite former ministers – say the law merely enables the expansion of reforms that Tony Blair wanted to drive through and that the main obstacles will be in the implementation, rather than legislation.

However, Labour MPs are complaining that they have been given too little time to address concerns over the accountability of the new schools, which would no longer have to follow local authority guidance on admissions, special needs or other community programmes.

Ed Balls, the shadow schools secretary, attacked it as a “shambles” that posed a threat to the schools system.

“We will show that this bill will create unfair and two-tier education in this country, gross unfairness in funding, standards not rising but falling, with fairness in social cohesion undermined,” he said.

Critics of the compressed timetable for debate include Graham Stuart, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, who called on Mr Gove to “reflect” on the decision, saying it was primarily motivated by the need to allow academies to open in September.

“If the legislation is on the statute book in a week’s time then this House will have to improve its powers of scrutiny,” he said.

Mr Balls has put down an amendment to extend the period of debate. However, the measure is unlikely to win support on Monday night, apart from a handful of Liberal Democrat abstentions.

Education officials are keenly aware of the need to show progress in schools reform, which they believe could be frustrated by bureaucracy.

Mr Stuart added in the Commons debate that his committee would be holding hearings next week on Mr Gove’s plans to scale back the Building Schools for the Future programme.

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