Nadhim Zahawi to strip back flagship schools' bill after being accused of a Whitehall 'power grab'

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has agreed to remove 18 key clauses from his flagship schools' bill after former Conservative ministers lined up to accuse him of a Whitehall "power grab". Conservative peer Lord Baker, who was education secretary in the 1980s, said the legislation would "increase the powers of the secretary of state and the [Department for Education] in a way unprecedented since 1870." The row is focused on parts of the bill that would have handed the secretary of state new powers to intervene in academies - schools which are meant to be free of local authority control. The legislation would have technically allowed Mr Zahawi to set standards across a long list of areas including the nature of education, curriculum, spiritual and moral teaching, the length of the school day and so on. Critics said he would effectively be able to micro-manage academy schools, which would become "academies" in name only.

Former education minister Lord Agnew is among those who expressed concern over the bill.

Lord Agnew and Lord Nash - who are both former schools' ministers focused on academies - also expressed alarm about the power shift contained in the bill. Some see the bill as reversing the freedoms given to schools by Michael Gove during the coalition years. Sources told ITV News about urgent discussions taking place last night following a series of amendments laid down by the peers that would effectively gut the bill. Today education minister Baroness Barran has written to peers to say the government is cutting out the first four clauses of the bill on how a huge expansion of academy trusts will be regulated. In a letter seen by ITV News, she also agrees to accept amendments that effectively mean the next 13 clauses - around how the secretary of state can terminate an academy agreement - will also be taken out, meaning the government is removing the first 13 pages of the legislation. They will carry out a review that will decide how such oversight will be taken place, with new clauses or separate legislation introduced later on.

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Sources said Mr Zahawi never intended to take away freedoms from schools - and that he was simply listening to concerns and acting to offer reassurance. But Labour's shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, called the likely changes a "major climb down" that would see the Tory minister "rip up his own plans". The legislation itself was meant to be about expanding the number of schools that turn into academies - which are meant to be given freedom from local authorities to make their own decisions - and then linking them together in multi-academy trusts. But the bill starts with a controversial sentence that says: "The secretary of state may by regulations set standards in relation to academies".

It then lists all the areas in which those standards can be set - including "the nature and quality of education provided and the curriculum followed...the welfare, health and safety of and attendance by pupils... the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils... the provision of careers guidance... the length of the school day, the school year, school terms or school holiday periods..." and much more. Lord Baker told colleagues in the House of Lords: “It’s a real grab for power by the Department for Education. You must remember that the DfE since 1870 has never run a school. Now they’re going to take complete control over the education system. And so I think they should be watched. “This is really a game-changing bill of a very significant nature, and I think it’s totally unproved that the DfE actually knows very much about the improvement of schools.”

Lord Baker said the changes amounted to the bill having its "heart cut out of it", calling it a big win for the House of Lords. 

He called it "remarkable" and said there had never been a situation in which ministers had removed 18 clauses from the bill. 

He told ITV news the initial wording had been a "power grab"- and it was right that DFE was stepping back on this.  "I'm very glad the new secretary of state has acted quickly to remove the clauses." 

A former Labour education secretary also intervened.

Baroness Morris - who ran the Department for Education under Tony Blair in 2001 and 2002 - said the legislation would mean schools were "academies" in name only. She argued that the bill was trying to "remedy the faults" of the coalition years, -when academy expansion was ramped up - and said she said she was in favour of multi-academy trusts. But she added: “The proposals in the bill on academies are incredibly tight. If you look down the list of powers which the secretary of state is taking to himself, they cover absolutely everything, from governors to the length of the day to the term to the curriculum... “In fact, what we’re doing in this bill is we’re making all academies maintained schools, and giving them all the restrictions that applied to maintained schools, but leaving them with the name of academy.”

In the House of Commons, Labour's Bridget Phillipson MP said: “This is a major climbdown from Nadhim Zahawi and confirms this chaotic government has no plan to drive-up standards in our schools and improve outcomes for our children.

“Just days ago the schools minister told the Commons these were important provisions. Now the government has binned them.

"The Conservatives are in a mess trying to rush through laws to avoid scrutiny and distract from their own incompetence." But a Department for Education Source insisted that Mr Zahawi always wanted schools to have freedoms and never meant for these clauses to suggest otherwise.

"We've not changed out mind about this, we're just obsessing about getting the wording in the bill right so everyone is clear, and feels secure, that it does what it is meant to, and can't be abused or misinterpreted by future governments," the source added. They said there was always a plan to publish a review alongside the bill - which they released last night after ITV News revealed the discussions taking place - that would look into how any new powers for the secretary of state would be kept to a minimum. A spokesman for the Department for Education said that the clauses were being removed temporarily and new ones would be written, insisting that they stuck by the objectives of those clauses.

“As we work towards all schools in strong academy trusts, we have been clear that the current regulatory system must evolve to retain parents’ confidence and make sure every school in every trust is helping their pupils fulfil their potential," he said.  

“We therefore remain committed to the Schools Bill putting clear academy trust standards on a legal footing, and allowing for the government to intervene directly in the rare cases of academy trust failure. 

“But we are listening to concerns from peers about how the provisions in the Bill would operate in practice, and will make sure the Bill protects and strengthens the fundamental freedoms academies enjoy."