Bill has been bolstered

23rd July 2010 at 01:00

Your front page article, "Academies reform to be rushed through using anti-terror rules", (July 16) rightly emphasised the shortened timetable for discussion of the Academies Bill in the Commons but failed to mention that last week the bill had completed its process of scrutiny through the Lords (some 31 hours) and that substantial changes had been made during that process.

Liberal Democrats had always had reservations about Labour's academies precisely because they took the schools outside local authority control. In this bill we were confronted by proposals from our coalition partners that enabled all schools to move in this direction.

We took the position of "critical friend", considering what changes we could make to the bill which, while not destroying its central tenet, would make it easier to accept. In this we worked closely with (schools minister) Lord Hill and (Education Secretary) Michael Gove. There was "give and take" on all parts, but we felt there had been real achievements.

Chief among these was a new duty on schools seeking to convert to academies to consult parents, teachers, local authorities and other interested parties and for the Secretary of State, in considering an application, to take account of the impact on other schools in the area.

In relation to special educational needs, academies will be on a par with other state schools. The local authority retains responsibility for assessment and for ensuring that the children involved receive the extra support they need, and money to provide these services (and transport) remains with the local authority.

We also gained a number of assurances that alleviated some worries. The new academies are to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act, and they are to comply with local admissions codes and participate in exclusion and behaviour partnerships.

While grammar schools could become academies and remain selective, no further expansion of selectivity is to be allowed. Similarly, while faith schools converting to academies may retain their faith designation, new faith schools set up as "free schools" must have 50 per cent of their intake available to other faiths or none. And when the bill states that the pupils will come "wholly or mainly from the local area", this means that at least 50 per cent must come from the area where the school is situated.

All in all, the bill left the Lords well scrutinised, a better bill and better understood. As coalition partners, we worked closely with ministers and secured concessions which in the normal course of party politics we might not have gained.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford and Baroness Walmsley of West Derby, House of Lords.

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