School Bill must respect children's wishes and welfare

Green peer Natalie Bennett recalls the Lords' debate on the Government's School Bill – which prioritises multi-academy trusts over children's health and wishes.

An image of a school classroom
An image of a school classroom
Natalie Bennett

After the Queen’s Speech, setting out the 38 new laws planned by the Government in the next year or so, and the partygate scandal rolling on, and on, and on, the House of Lords is now working on the tranche of Bills starting their parliamentary life with us.

First up on Monday was the Schools Bill. When I started to examine it, and particularly its provisions for the forced expansion of multi-academy trusts (MAT), a famous Denis Healey first law of politics came to mind, known as the 'law of holes' – when you are in one, stop digging.

Labour’s Lord Blunkett said that it was a 'mouse of a bill' – one that fails comprehensively to offer new ideas, new approaches, to tackle the enormous, seemingly overwhelming challenges faced by young people and the society that is so comprehensively failing them.

Rather, I said, it was a mole of a bill – the Government is blindly digging in deeper on a failed policy, a policy that demonstrably does not deliver even what seems to be the one thing the Government is overwhelmingly focused on – better exam results in a narrow handful of subjects. Council-maintained schools actually do better than academies –so the Government is going for worsening our children’s education.

But, the Government says, the Secretary of State will under this Bill have new powers to direct MATs. You’d think – given the problems of corruption in government – the Government might be having second thoughts about that. An extremely valuable briefing from the London School of Economics and Politics pointed out that ‘related party transactions' – business arrangements between a MAT and a body with which those associated with its governance had a personal connection – were worth £120 million in 2015. This bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers of control over the actions of MATs – powers that could well be linked to spending.

But the issues are bigger, much bigger, than mere money. They are about what schools are being pushed to be: sausage machines shoving out identikit pupils with the best possible exam results. When they should be, as the Green Party understands clearly, integral parts of their communities, contributing not just to education for the young, but building strong ties across all ages. 

Without local governance oversight and involvement – and MATs don’t require that at any level, but even if they have boards of governors, they may be spread across the country, hundreds of kilometres apart – how much will local parents and citizens want to contribute, get involved, when they have no say?

One phrase in this bill really struck me – it talks about 'the proprietor of a school in England'. A proprietor, the dictionary tells me, is the owner of a business or the holder of the property. Now that’s a legal definition, but what does it say about the Government’s idea of what a school is? We have seen among all our other sweeping privatisations: the taking of our schools out of public hands.

Another aspect of the MAT trust model is striking. I went to an unsigned department of education blog dated 14 October 2021, which, in justifying the government stance, says: "they enable the strongest leaders to take responsibility for supporting more schools”. So, again we encounter what I’d say is a profoundly unGreen – but more importantly a profoundly unsuccessful – model of leadership.

One person blazes the trail, and everyone trudges along behind. Instead, why not draw on the talents, the abilities, the skills, the energy of the many – teachers, parents, communities, and pupils – to collectively shape their local school?

That’s not to decry the power of networks – of those schools, and locally it would be groups of local schools – working together, learning from each other. But a forced model is not a community, it’s a bureaucratic top-down imposition.

The impact assessment says the bill wants to: “address the barriers that some schools face to joining a strong multi-academy trust”. What about the schools that desperately, furiously – in the face of this bill it would seem hopelessly – have fought very hard NOT to join a multi-academy trust? What about school communities that are desperately unhappy in an MAT and want to leave it? 

That’s what’s in the bill. What’s lacking, as peer after peer noted, is substantial action on the epidemic of ill-health affecting our young people.

Earlier this year I asked the Government what it planned to do about the UK having the unhappiest children in Europe. The answer was entirely about exam results allegedly delivering better chances for children.

Following that up, I asked this week if the government expected that deeply unhappy children, or children with mental illness – anxiety, depression, who are self-harming – can really be expected to attain the exam results it craves? Would it acknowledge that is a key barrier to learning? There was no answer.

420,000 children and young people a month are being treated for mental health issues in England alone. I don’t want to hold schools responsible for that – schools already being expected to make far too much of a contribution in making up for the failures of our society: poverty and inequality, inadequate, overcrowded housing, lack of opportunities for exercise in communities. It is our society – our government – that is failing to attain a decent level of society. 

But will this bill make their job of catering to ill young people even harder? Will it make those children even ill? It is clear that the answer is 'yes'. 

I also asked the minister what consultation with young people had been conducted in the preparation of the Bill. I didn’t get an answer to that, but it is something I’ll be following up, trying to build into the Bill – as we need to build into all Bills, but particularly those directly affecting young people.

Additional note: there’s another huge issue with the Bill, its plans to intrude into families that home-educate children. The joy of having two Green peers is that Jenny Jones was able to use her time to particularly focus on that issue.