The Government is in a hurry. It wants its new Academies Bill to be passed by the House of Commons early next week so some schools can convert into academies by the start of the new academic year in September. In order to meet this tight deadline, the administration has decided to scrap the usual committee stage reading for the Bill. Instead, the legislation will be scrutinised by a committee made up of the whole house.
The Government's haste is understandable. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wants to start delivering on the Conservatives' flagship manifesto promise as soon as possible. And there is other reforming legislation for education waiting in the pipeline. But there is a reason why it takes time for the Commons to scrutinise a new piece of legislation. This is to ensure that the scrutiny process is as thorough as possible and to prevent poorly drafted legislation being passed.
And this Bill is no exception in needing proper scrutiny. It is a sound idea to offer schools greater autonomy over how they teach and manage their affairs. Indeed, it is a continuation of the approach of Labour, which set up the first academies. But without proper safeguards there is potential for things to go badly wrong.
The Bill will remove the oversight of local authorities over many schools. But what are the safeguards if one of these liberated institutions should fail? What will trigger intervention from the Department for Education? Mr Gove says every successful school that opts to become an academy will take a struggling school "under its wing". What precisely does this mean? And how will this co-operation be enforced? Collapsing the legislative timetable will make it more difficult for MPs to ask these sort of awkward questions.
Mr Gove misses the point when he argues that because this is a well-known Conservative policy the Bill needs less parliamentary scrutiny. It is certainly true that MPs knew the direction in which the Government wanted to travel. But their job as legislators is to scrutinise the detail of the Bill and they were only presented with that detail yesterday. It is hard to see how they can do this job properly in the five hours they have been given to debate this legislation. Even the Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart MP, is sceptical about the move.
The fuss will probably die down. The Government is likely to get its way since it is too early in the life of the coalition for MPs to rebel. But the affair does highlight some troubling contradictions in the Government's approach. Ministers say they want to put Parliament back in the driving seat of national politics. But they are arbitrarily cutting the time available for MPs to scrutinise Bills.
And there are contradictions in the Bill itself. The Government claims it wants to reinvigorate local democracy, but this legislation will help emasculate local councils by making schools directly answerable to the Education Department.
Meanwhile, the Government says it wants to make a priority of education. But some of the cuts to school building and refurbishment programmes have been made necessary by the Chancellor's decision to cut public spending further and faster than the previous administration's plans. Education is, of course, about more than buildings and facilities. But Mr Gove seems to be in danger of underestimating the extent to which buildings and facilities matter.
The coalition has embarked on a bold but risky experiment in liberalising the education sector. In attempting to enact these reforms in a climate of severe public austerity, ministers were always going to be walking a perilous tightrope. And as every experienced entertainer knows, a tightrope is no place to rush.