Home Home School The Schools Bill aims to finish the Gove revolution, but a homeschooling...

The Schools Bill aims to finish the Gove revolution, but a homeschooling register will be the landmark change

As Whitehall goes, the Department for Education has seen a lot of ministerial comings and goings in recent years, with five different Conservative Education Secretaries since July 2014.

While each individual has brought their own hobby horses (and bugbears) to the role, all five have found themselves in the long shadow cast by one man: Michael Gove.

Serving as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, Mr Gove introduced policies which have framed the Tories’ education agenda ever since.

The Schools Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech is no exception. While Mr Gove did not invent the academies policy, which began under New Labour, he put rocket boosters under the programme, removing thousands of schools from local authority control.

The new Bill aims to complete Mr Gove’s revolution by making sure that every school in England is part of an academy chain or in the process of joining one by 2030.

Whether the Government can hit that target is an open question. The current Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has indicated he wants to persuade schools to join academy trusts of their own accord, rather than forcing them to jump ship.

To ease their way, councils will get a new right to set up their own academy chains. And to head off criticism that academies do no better than council schools, new powers are planned to allow intervention in underperforming trusts.

The Government believes its legislation will help it hit a target of 90 per cent of primary school children reaching the expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030, though it has yet to provide the details about how this will actually be achieved.

However, the lasting significance of the Schools Bill lies away from academisation.

For decades, homeschooled children have been almost entirely hidden from the Government’s gaze, with the Department for Education (DfE) unable to even say how many children are educated outside of school.

Concerns about children being placed in unsafe, illegal schools (another focus of the Bill) encouraged ministers to embrace the idea of a compulsory register of “children not in school”. But it has taken the Covid pandemic for the Government to legislate. During the 2020-21 academic year, 115,000 children were estimated to have been home educated at some point – an increase of 34 per cent on the previous year.

The Government says a register, paired with a new duty on local authorities to provide support to homeschooling parents, will help councils identify children who are not receiving a safe or adequate education.

If the legislation is passed, it will represent an historic shift in the scope of society’s interest in children’s upbringing. How parents educate their offspring will no longer be seen as a totally private concern, cut off from any outside scrutiny.