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Schools Bill dropped as Government prioritises tackling economic storm

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan insisted the Government remained committed to some of the elements within the doomed legislation.

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A flagship piece of education legislation has been dropped after running into opposition in Parliament.

The Schools Bill, which had already been stripped of key elements, will not progress, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said.

She told MPs that parliamentary time was being focused on measures relating to the economic crisis, but insisted the Government still viewed elements of the Bill as a priority.

The legislation was originally intended to cover issues including school funding, the regulation of academies, tackling truancy, ensuring the welfare of home-educated children and banning unsuitable teachers.

She told MPs the Schools Bill, which has already been gutted during its passage through the Lords, “will not progress”.

The legislation had been due for its third reading in the Lords, but the Government stripped out contentious chunks of the Bill that would have given ministers sweeping powers over autonomous academies.

Labour claimed the Tories have “no plan” on education, having “binned” a Bill they once hailed as a priority.

Confirming the legislation would not progress, Ms Keegan told the Education Select Committee: “Obviously, there’s been a lot of things that we’ve had to focus on, and the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means that the parliamentary time has definitely been reprioritised on that.

“And we all know that we had to do that because of the pandemic aftershocks but also the war in Ukraine and we’ve needed to support families.

“However, we do remain committed to the objectives, the very many important objectives that underpinned the Bill, and we will be prioritising some aspects of the Bill as well to see what we can do.”

Cabinet meeting
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan appeared before the Education Select Committee (Victoria Jones/PA)

“A lot of the Schools White Paper is being implemented, it didn’t require legislation in many cases,” she said.

She said that a register of children not in school was “definitely a priority” as Committee chairman Robin Walker said he wanted to know how that could now be delivered.

The Government had committed to implementing a statutory register to stop vulnerable pupils falling through the cracks and going missing from school rolls.

But quizzed on how the objectives of the Bill could be achieved through non-legislative means, Downing Street appeared to suggest there would be a focus on supporting councils operating within the existing rules, saying it would help them with their “non-statutory registers of children not in school”.

Ms Keegan also said the Government could go “quite a long way to achieving our aims” on reforms to schools funding for England without legislation.

No 10 said the Government remains “committed” to the objectives set out in the Bill.

“We think a number of those objectives can be achieved,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“We’ve already published new guidance setting out how we expect schools to support children struggling with school attendance.

“We can help reduce the number of children in schools rated below good, and obviously local authorities – we can help them with their non-statutory registers of children not in school.”

Ms Keegan also said the Government was committed to legislate on protections for faith schools joining multi-academy trusts.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “From the moment the Schools Bill was published it was clear it wasn’t going to be workable. It was inevitable the Government would eventually have to scrap it, and we are pleased to see it won’t go ahead in its current form.

“And it’s a shame that the sensible and necessary elements of the Bill that we did support have been thrown into the long grass alongside the others.

“The introduction of a register of children not in school, for example, is something we believe is important to improve safeguarding for children, as is the crackdown on illegal schools. We hope these elements of the Bill won’t be lost entirely.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the legislation had been “widely discredited” and it was a “relief” the Bill had been scrapped.

“Now that it has dropped the Schools Bill, Government has the opportunity to focus on the actual priorities and the real challenges around modernising assessment, identifying funding and addressing teacher retention,” he added.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “It couldn’t be clearer that the Conservatives have no idea how to improve education and drive high standards for our children.

“They hailed this Bill as a priority and now they’ve binned it.

“The attainment gap is widening, school buildings are crumbling, more and more children are being left without a qualified teacher, and the Conservatives have no plan.”

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