The Education and Adoption Bill

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Since its announcement in June 2015, the Education and Adoption Bill has been progressing its way through Parliament, first debated by the House of Commons and now scrutinised by the House of Lords.

The Bill aims to improve education for all children in England and to enable governing bodies to intervene more quickly where a failing school has been identified. It will bring into effect the Government's plans to force the conversion of any schools either deemed to be coasting or eligible for intervention into an Academy. If passed, it is estimated that up to 1000 schools in England could be converted to academies by 2020.

Examples of the proposed changes to existing legislation, contained within the Bill, include expanding the definition of "eligible for intervention" to include coasting schools; granting additional powers to the Secretary of State to issue warning notices and to intervene where they deem a school to be underperforming; and removal of the consultation process where governing bodies are proposing to convert a school to Academy status. It also introduces a duty on both local authorities, and the governing bodies of the schools in question, to "take all reasonable steps to facilitate the conversion".

It has been widely acknowledged by the House of Lords that the education system is in need of reform, in order to enable all children to have equal access to the high standard of education they deserve. It has been agreed that local authorities have not previously used their powers effectively to issue warning notices to those schools which are deemed to be underperforming. Previous successes of academy schools have also been highlighted by some members as a prime example of what academy sponsorship can achieve for schools, in relation to the provision of education.

Despite these points, the House of Lords have had mixed feelings about the new Bill, largely stemming from the opinion of some that the automatic academisation of failing schools is not always the best solution for raising standards. It has also been identified that the Bill in no way addresses the growing concerns over teacher retention, or the benefits of providing incentives to attract the best teachers to those schools which are considered to be failing or underperforming. It is also felt amongst some members of the House that the Bill detrimentally excludes parents, governors and local authorities from being involved in the decision-making process when consulting on the outcome of a failing school.

Several amendments to the Bill have been proposed by the House of Lords since its initial reading, although not all have stayed the course. One such amendment was to allow local authorities to create committees, for the specific purposes of scrutinising and reviewing the provision of education in those schools deemed to be coasting within the local authority's area, provided that coasting schools made up more than 10% of schools of that local area. This was recommended for inclusion as a means of tackling concerns around a school's financial accountability to parents and their local communities, as well as providing more transparency throughout the decision-making process. However, this amendment has since been withdrawn, due to concerns that it would impose an additional burden on local authorities.

At the second report stage (which took place on 16th December), an additional amendment was put forward by the House of Lords, which would require schools which had been issued with an Academy Order to conduct a consultation with parents, teachers, governors of the school, the relevant local authority and other persons deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State, in order to determine whether the school should be converted to Academy status or not. Once brought to a close, any conclusion of the consultation would need to be taken into account by the Secretary of State when making a decision as to the school's outcome. Upon a vote of the members, this amendment was quashed as it was feared that the consultation process could result in unnecessary debate and delays in the conversion process.

As a result of the opposition in favour of parental involvement and consultation, a subsequent amendment has been proposed, which would introduce a requirement for academy chains (a partnership between a group of academies) to communicate their conversion plans to parents. Whilst this does not allow them to contribute to the decision being made as to a school's fate, it is hoped that this addition will provide reassurance to parents that no action will be taken without their prior knowledge.

The third reading of the Bill took place on the 8th February 2016 and offered a final opportunity for amendments to be discussed and made by the House of Lords. Prior to this reading, there still remained much debate in respect of the definition of coasting; whether the definition will include academies; and what this will mean practically if applied to failing academies. The third reading also provided a final opportunity for the members to debate the issue of communication and consultation with parents. All final amendments to the Bill, as proposed by the House of Lords, are to be considered by the House of Commons on 23rd February 2016.