The government’s changes to education legislation are based on “narrow political tactics” that could have “serious unintended consequences”, Lucy Powell has warned as she launched Labour’s most vocal attack on the plans yet.
In her first House of Commons appearance since her weekend appointment as shadow education secretary, Ms Powell attacked her Conservative opposite number Nicky Morgan over the Education and Adoption Bill, which was debated for the third time.
Ms Powell told MPs the bill contained “a number of serious flaws” and did nothing to meet challenges faced by the education sector. She said the “crude” measures in the bill would exclude some schools that needed intervention and include some that did not.
She also criticised clauses that would remove requirements to consult widely before removing a school from local authority oversight and handing it to an academy trust. She added that it would take “oversight, parental involvement and support for headteachers backwards”.
Ms Powell said she would spend the coming months “listening, developing, responding, and setting a course for an ambitious vision for education in this country, something this bill fails to do”.
Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn has spoken out against the conversion of schools in his own constituency from local authority oversight to a trust. Ms Powell said on her first day that she agreed with the leader on matters of oversight.
During the debate she described the legislation as a “huge missed opportunity for a recently-returned majority government”, and described Ms Morgan’s primary interest as “narrow political tactics”, not raising standards.
But Ms Morgan argued that the bill showed her government’s “commitment to delivering real social justice” and “intolerance of failure”.
She said: “Our work will not be complete until every school in every part of the country is providing its pupils with an excellent education.”
Ms Morgan came under fire for an earlier reference to the Manchester Enterprise Academy, which she described during a debate in June as having been “turned around” by its conversion to an academy.
As the MP for Manchester Central, Ms Powell said that the school’s main academy sponsor was, in fact, the local city council, but that it had faced “leadership changes, financial problems and low attainment for many years after it became an academy” and had seen its GCSE results “drop by 9 per cent this year”.
She said: “This example she cited highlights my bigger point. As secretary of state, despite having a whole department working on her speech and sourcing examples, no one brought the real situation of the academy to her attention, yet local representatives could have told her.
“This only highlights the difficult job the secretary of state has in being singularly responsible for thousands of schools.”
Former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt criticised the government for turning down all of Labour’s proposed amendment bills, arguing that this was a sign of “dogma”.
However, schools minister Nick Gibb argued that the amendments added “unnecessary” consultations.
“We have seen too many instances of deliberate procrastination by people ideologically hostile to the academies’ programme”
Labour proposals to amend the bill so that it covered academies and forced the government to consult parents and communities about academy plans were defeated
The bill eventually passed its third reading by 300 votes to 200, and will now be considered by the House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority and Labour will be hoping to try to amend the legislation with the help of other parties.