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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.