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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.