Academies: five things they don't tell you, from Mehdi Hasan

The battle heats up over the future of our schools system.

Is attention now turning from the hapless Andrew Lansley at health to the smooth yet gaffe-prone Michael Gove at education? On Monday, Fiona Millar, writing in the Guardian on the subject of academies and free schools, declared: "We must now have an open debate about privatisation".

On Tuesday, also in the Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote of how "schools are being bribed or bullied into becoming freestanding academies outside local democratic control".

In today's New Statesman, I note how "education could become as toxic for the Tories as health".

The inconvenient truth for the coalition is that ministers and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press have exaggerated the benefits and popularity of academies. There are a great deal of myths surrounding the recent academies "revolution". Here, for example, are five things that they don't tell you:

1) Nearly three-quarters of schools that have converted to academy status, or intend to convert, are driven by the belief that it would benefit them financially, rather than educationally, according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders.

2) According to a recent YouGov poll, less than one in three voters think turning more schools into academies will raise education standards.

3) According to a recent analysis of league table data by Dr Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University, the "excessive" use of vocational equivalents has been "inflating" the results of England's academy schools. Academies, as even the right-wing thinktank Civitas has acknowledged, are "inadequately academic".

4) We hear a great deal about the success stories - Mossbourne, the ARK schools, etc - but have you heard about Birkdale High School in Southport, which only converted to a centrally-funded academy school in August 2011? It has just been deemed "inadequate" and put into special measures by Ofsted due to failures that inspectors identified during a two-day visit in December. Academy status is no guarantee of success.

5) In January, the Financial Times revealed that eight academies in financial difficulty have had to be bailed out by a Department for Education quango over the past 18 months, at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £11m. "Civil servants are increasingly worried about the lack of close supervision and sustained support for the schools - the so-called "middle tier" problem," wrote the FT's Chris Cook.

 

Oh, and if you're looking for a more detailed and informed take on academies, free schools and the privatisation of our education system, check out Melissa Benn's excellent book School Wars. It's reviewed by Francis Beckett in the NS here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity