The schools bill, introduced this year with a promise to “raise education standards” across England, is being scrapped, the government has finally confirmed, after months of opposition and uncertainty.
The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, told MPs on the education select committee that the flagship legislation “will not progress” in the third session of parliament, adding that ministers remained committed to the objectives of the bill.
In her first appearance as education secretary before the Commons committee, Keegan said the government would continue to prioritise certain elements of the bill, including a proposed register for children who were not in school.
The bill, introduced by one of Keegan’s predecessors, Nadhim Zahawi, was due for its third reading in the Lords but had already been gutted after running into fierce opposition over clauses that critics claimed would have given ministers sweeping and unprecedented powers over how academies operate.
The scrapping of the bill is the third government U-turn this week. It comes after the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, lifted a ban on onshore wind and diluted earlier commitments on housing.
Explaining the move, Keegan told the committee: “Obviously, there’s been a lot of things that we’ve had to focus on, and the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means that the parliamentary time has definitely been reprioritised on that.”
The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “It couldn’t be clearer that the Conservatives have no idea how to improve education and drive high standards for our children. They hailed this bill as a priority, now they’ve binned it. The attainment gap is widening, school buildings are crumbling, more and more children are being left without a qualified teacher, and the Conservatives have no plan.”
The government’s original promise on launching the legislation was that it would underpin its ambition “for every child to receive a world-class education, no matter where in the country they live”.
It pledged to raise standards through a range of measures including supporting schools to join strong, multi-academy trusts, a new register for children not in school and new powers for Ofsted to crack down on unregistered schools operating illegally.
Keegan told the education committee that many of the bill’s ambitions could still be implemented without legislation, including reforms to schools funding in England, and said the government remained committed to legislating on protections for faith schools joining multi-academy trusts.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the flaws in the bill had been obvious.
“While this is the right decision, it does reflect the chaos of government over the last 12 months. It’s frustrating that so much of everyone’s time has been spent dealing with this when we could all see its flaws.”
The National Education Union’s joint general secretary, Kevin Courtney, also welcomed the bill’s demise. He said: “Parents and local councillors want an education system which is well-funded, responsive to local needs and which works for their local context, without pressure to join a mega trust.”
During the session, Keegan appeared to pour cold water on media reports that Sunak was planning to limit international student numbers.
She was also questioned about how schools were dealing with transgender issues by a number of MPs who raised concerns that teachers were “indoctrinating” children while parents were either kept in the dark or were too frightened to raise concerns for fear of being accused of being transphobic.
Promising that new guidance would be published for consultation in the new year, she said:“People have raised issues, but this is not every school I go into, [where] everyone is outraged with the materials that are being used. That’s not happening.”