Gove hoping to push through academies bill

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The Independent Online

Education Secretary Michael Gove will attempt to rush school reform legislation through Parliament today before the summer break.

The Academies Bill, which would allow more schools to opt out of local authority control and pave the way for controversial "free" schools, will be debated in the Commons later.

Using a timetable usually reserved for emergency laws such as anti-terror powers, the Government hopes to push it onto the statute book within just a week.

But the decision, already under fire from Labour and teaching unions, was also questioned by the Tory chairman of the education select committee.

Graham Stuart said only a "pretty overwhelming argument" could justify the risk of cutting short debating time and called on Mr Gove to explain his decision.

"To make changes to public services of this importance, ideally you would have longer to reflect on it and to suggest changes and improvements and make sure there aren't any problems which haven't been considered," he told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend.

Debate on the Bill - which was already considered by the House of Lords - will come as teachers descend on Parliament to protest against the scrapping of a £55 billion school building programme.

Construction workers, pupils, parents, school governors, local authority officials and MPs will also take part in the rally.

Unions complain that approval of the Bill would see new academy schools in wealthy areas have access to cash while others in desperate need of repair lose out.

The Westminster rally against the Building Schools for the Future cuts, which was organised by the NASUWT teaching union, will include speeches followed by a demonstration at Westminster.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: "Run-down, dilapidated buildings are not being replaced while schools in good repair are getting brand new buildings just because they are becoming academies. There is a direct link between these decisions and the Academies Bill being rushed through Parliament using procedures normally reserved for anti-terrorist laws."

The Department of Education said the short debate should be "no surprise" as it was a Tory manifesto commitment to offer schools the chance to become academies from September.

MPs are due to start their summer recess on July 27.

"Enough time has been set aside for a thorough debate," a DoE spokesman said.

"Two days of committee will take place on the floor of the House of Commons, which will give all MPs the opportunity to fully debate and scrutinise the provisions of the Bill," he said.

The committee stage of legislation is usually conducted by a small group of MPs able to examine legislation in detail before it goes back to the Commons chamber for further debate.

Mr Stuart said the highly-unusual move to "short-cut" standard procedures could cause serious problems - and demanded answers from Mr Gove.

"If few actually do convert, the rushed legislative process will be hard to justify," he said.

"But if, on the other hand, large numbers move then inevitably people will ask whether sufficient consideration has been given to the system-wide impact of this on things like support for children with special needs.

"The Secretary of State needs to explain why he felt that normal processes of scrutiny were being short-cut and I will be interested to hear his explanation. Members would expect a pretty overwhelming argument before that sort of thing occurred."

Labour tabled a motion opposing the Bill "because it creates the legal framework for the expensive free market schools reforms which will be funded by scrapping existing school building programmes" and would benefit only a minority of already successful schools.

Mr Gove was previously forced to apologise to the Commons and council leaders after it emerged that an initial list of 715 affected BSF projects was strewn with errors. Many schools believed to have escaped the axe later learned their rebuilding projects would be affected.

Shadow education secretary Ed Balls, who is to speak at the rally, said: "The thoughtless and botched way Michael Gove announced it showed the hurry he was in.

"But far from being in a hurry to save this money, he is in a desperate hurry to spend it - because Michael Gove's cuts have little to do with reducing the deficit.

"The Academies Bill will allow him to spend the money he has snatched away from hundreds of schools across the country to build his 'free market' schools.

"That reform was tried and failed in Sweden, but it saw standards fall and inequality rise as only the better off took advantage.

"It is deeply unfair that Michael Gove wants to put money into this failed idea at the expense of schools in hundreds of communities that are crying out for 21st century facilities and which now won't get them."

Mr Gove defended the speed with which the Government was pushing through the legislation, saying that it was a key Conservative election commitment.

"This was the centrepiece of the election campaign, this was a manifesto commitment, this was an argument that we had been making for years beforehand," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"If you have, as we have, hundreds of schools who are anxious to take advantage of these proposals, then it is understandable that you want to honour the manifesto commitment.

"I think it is a refreshing change after 13 years when promises weren't honoured that we are honouring the promises now."

Ms Keates said the hallmark of the coalition Government's first weeks in power had been "arrogant, indecent haste leading to reckless decisions and mistakes".

She added: "Decisions which affect the life chances of thousands of children and young people should be made on the basis of wide consultation, careful consideration and proper parliamentary scrutiny.

"Yet here we have a Government which has axed, with breath- taking speed and no consultation, hundreds of school building projects, put thousands of construction workers on the dole, denied hundreds of unemployed young people apprenticeship opportunities and has not even been able to produce an accurate list of which schools are affected.

"With the same indecent haste, the Government is forcing an Academies Bill through Parliament today which will set up a system of private schools funded by the taxpayer."