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State’s school power grab is a stake to the heart of family life

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FOR parents of children in schools, the Schools Bill progressing through Parliament represents the most frightening power grab yet by the Government over family life and autonomy.It is not just conservatives who reel in horror at the amount of power it gives to the Department for Education over schools, families and children.

At Second Reading, many peers from both the main parties raised concerns, including two former Secretaries of State for Education, Lords Blunkett and Baker, and the Conservative peer Lord Lingfield, a renowned advocate and pioneer for school autonomy. 

In the words of Lord Baker: ‘It is a real grab for power by the Department for Education [which] has never run a school. It does not know how to determine any of the aspects of running a school, but now it is going to take complete control over the education system. It should be watched—not least by members of the Church of England.’

The DfE power grab does not just relate to control of funding for all 24,413 state schools, but extends to every school in light of its stated intention to ensure that all schools should become academies in multi-academy trusts by 2030. Viscount Eccles summed it up thus: ‘We have been presented a stream of good intentions. The problem is that I do not think Parliament is at all wise or sensible to live on good intentions.’ Nor may they be everybody’s idea of good intentions and if the intention is such state control of school life and educational choice as determined by local education authority commissars, then even the intention is not good.

Why, for example, would giving the DfE powers which enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in the Act without parliamentary scrutiny even be considered? This is government by fiat, of the sort normally associated with an authoritarian socialist state such as the former Soviet Union.  

The Bill as it stands gives the DfE the right to decide, among other things:

·         the procedures and criteria for admission; 

·         the nature and quality of education and the curriculum;

·         the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils; 

·         the application procedure for designation as an Academy with religious character;

·         the length of the school day, year, or school holiday periods;

·         the assessment of pupils’ performance and their entry to examinations; 

·         premises, land and accommodation;

·         governance structures and procedures (including composition of boards of directors of, and their responsibilities);

·         the suitability of proprietors and staff;

·         the procedures and criteria for appointing staff and assigning their roles; 

·         the remuneration of staff (including pensions).

This closes down any future possibility that a new church school can be set up. Governance can be decided by the DfE with power to remove governors and replace them. Worship and RE arrangements can be changed or even removed. The DfE will have the right to set the curriculum, removing any freedom of choice from school heads and governors. The DfE could be aptly renamed Big Educational Brother.

The DfE will have the right to set absence policies, completely removing any parental right to obtain permission from the head teacher for term-time off for any reason. This should ring alarm bells, particularly when read with other sections of the Bill. First the DfE will set fines for absences and has already indicated that these will be punitive. Second are far-reaching and extensive requirements for registration of children not in school. While this may be aimed at dealing with entrenched truancy and absenteeism it will apply to every child. At first glance registration of children may not seem to be an issue for most parents, but as the Bill stands, if a child takes a day off for an appointment, the parent will have to register with the local authority, provide it with any information that it asks and, if they do not, face fines and possible imprisonment.Far-fetched, you may say, nonetheless once that power is given to the DfE it relies solely on its good intentions and those of local authority officials to use it wisely. Can we trust those ‘good intentions?’ It is much easier to control, target and penalise responsible parents than irresponsible or non-coping ones. 

Thirdly, if a family member chooses to educate their child with special needs for some or all of the time, he or she will have to register as a school, face Ofsted inspection and undertake to provide personal information to the local authority. Poignantly, since schools are currently failing thousands of children with special needs, if the parent of a special-needs child is served with a school attendance order, or fails to register with their local authority, or even makes a clerical error, that order can never be revoked. 

Finally this Bill takes away the primacy of parents and hands that right to faceless civil servants in the DfE. It neuters the powers of school head teachers, governors and proprietors, rendering them uniform and removing any possibility of adaptation to need, innovation, imagination or creativity. It is an over-regulation blanket that will depress and smother the system.

There is nothing remotely conservative about this Bill – it is the antithesis of freedom, choice and responsibility; it drives another stake into the heart of the family. Parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone concerned with the welfare of children should challenge this unprecedented power grab by the DfE. 

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Wendy Charles-Warner
Wendy Charles-Warner
Wendy Charles-Warner is a retired lawyer and chairman of Education Otherwise.

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