Schools Bill: Demand for clarity over 'parent pledge' and 32.5-hour week

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leaders are demanding clarity on the future of policies such as the “parent pledge” and the 32.5-hour school week following the axing of the Schools Bill.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan has confirmed that the Bill will not progress in Parliament but has told MPs on the Education Select Committee this week that she is still “committed to the objectives” behind the Bill.

The Schools Bill, which had been awaiting its third reading in Parliament, included the headline requirement that every school should be on the way to joining or be part of a multi-academy trust by 2030. It also gave significant and controversial powers to the secretary of state to set standards and control the activities of academy schools.

However, there were a number of other more immediate policies including a mandatory register for children not in school and new attendance policy requirements.

New non-statutory attendance guidance came into force in September and was expected to be made statutory next year.

The axing of the Bill has also raised questions over the future of policies that were included in the White Paper (DfE, 2022) which preceded the Schools Bill, including the so-called “parent pledge” – which focused on children who “fall behind” in maths or English and was intended to guarantee that they will get “the support they need to get back on track” – and plans for a minimum school week of 32.5 hours by September 2023.

It is expected that the DfE could seek to push through these policies as part of other Bills. Other White Paper policies might not need legislation at all, Ms Keegan told the Education Select Committee.

Responding to the news, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was the “correct decision to withdraw the Schools Bill” but called for clarity on the future of some of the policies within it.

She said: “The Schools Bill was poorly written and problematic, particularly the clumsy attempt to give the secretary of state unprecedented powers over individual schools.

“We would also question whether focusing on large structural change is the right priority for the government at the moment, given the hugely worrying and growing shortage of teachers and the rising costs schools and colleges are having to grapple with.

“However, if the intention to move towards a fully trust-led system remains, it will be necessary to simplify and streamline the way in which multi-academy trusts are regulated and the government will now have to find other ways to take this work forward.

“There were some much-needed proposals in other areas in the Schools Bill, including plans for a register of children not in school, and greater powers for Ofsted to investigate unregistered schools. These policies are long overdue and should still be a priority.

“There are also many proposals in the Schools White Paper which were not included in the Bill but which appear to be in limbo because of the multiple ministerial changes since it was published. This includes proposals around a longer school week and the “parent pledge”. It is not helpful that schools do not know whether or not these are being progressed.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that it was clear the Schools Bill was “unworkable”. He continued: “It was inevitable the government would eventually have to scrap it, and we are pleased to see it won’t go ahead in its current form. It’s frustrating that so much of everyone’s time has been spent dealing with this when we could all see its flaws.

“And it’s a shame that the sensible and necessary elements of the Bill that we did support have been thrown into the long grass alongside the others. The introduction of a register of children not in school, for example, is something we believe is important to improve safeguarding for children, as is the crackdown on illegal schools. We hope these elements of the Bill won’t be lost entirely.”

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