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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Who should be happiest about the polls: Jeremy Corbyn, or Theresa May?

Labour believe their small lead will only grow – but some Tories think that the only way for the opposition is down. 

Who should be happiest about the state of the polls? The intriguing feature of the polls at the moment is that all Britain’s first, second and third parties can all claim to be happy about them.

 Labour, understandably, point to their small lead over the Conservatives, the transformation in Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings, and the continuing popularity of the party’s platform.

And while no Labour politician is looking forward to a recession, most frontbenchers expect one, with the economic indicators all looking gloomy. That’s why the party’s narrow advantage in the polls, in of itself enough to guarantee a minority Labour government if it were borne out at an election, is seen as such good news by the leadership. They expect circumstances to extend, rather than contract the party’s small lead.

Liberal Democrat MPs are cheered, meanwhile, that the party is not suffering in the polls as it usually does outside of election season, when it tends to shrink from public view. Despite the fact their departing leader, Tim Farron, has largely only been in the news when his views about faith are up for discussion, the party actually appears to have made up a few points in the polls since the election, which is further cause for celebration.

It’s harder to find Conservative MPs in a cheery mood at the moment. Most are going into the summer recess in a state of shock, and are demoralised and deeply worried that Corbyn is on the verge of Downing Street.

But some more optimistic MPs can also, fairly, argue that the polls aren’t as bad as they ought to be. The economy is slowing, inflation is hitting take-home pay, their leader is hugely unpopular, and the party is publicly divided. Yet they are only very narrowly behind – suggesting that if they can get wages rising, ride out the downturn, resolve Brexit and unify around a new, more popular leader, they could be back on the front foot very quickly.

Their difficulty, of course, as I outline in my column this week, is that Conservative MPs cannot agree on how to get wages rising, ride out the downturn, or resolve Brexit – let alone on who their new, more popular leader might be. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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