High school miserable

Our political parties have been seduced by US charter schools. But are they any good? And do they ma

As polling day nears, it's dispiriting to see so little choice and diversity in the parties' proposals to improve our schools - and I write as someone who teaches in a comprehensive. Labour, the Tories and even the Liberal Democrats seem to think that introducing a more free-market system will raise educational standards; but all three parties have so far failed to tackle the problem of the way schools admit their pupils.

How did such a consensus come about? I suspect that too many ill-informed policy wonks have been visiting the US and Sweden. Dazzled by what they have seen in certain schools there, politicians are now suggesting that "charter" schools - institutions freed from state control and run by private companies - are the magic bullet. With academies, Labour has set up charter schools in all but name: privately sponsored, independent schools funded by the taxpayer. But Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, is an even greater cheerleader for them. "The best American charter schools, such as those run by the Knowledge is Power Programme (Kipp), specifically target children from disadvantaged homes," Gove has said. "And by applying certain tried-and-tested, thoroughly traditional teaching methods alongside technical innovation, they get fantastic results."

The success of Kipp has made our politicians of both the left and the right very enthusiastic about charter schools. Steve Mancini, Kipp's public affairs director, gave me an overview. Having initially been set up by two teachers, Kipp schools now enrol 21,000 pupils, with most of them coming from low-income families. "Despite being confronted with the challenges that come with growing up in poverty, students make significant academic growth while at Kipp," Mancini told me. "Kipp has had remarkable success in preparing students from low-income families for university. Although less than 10 per cent of this population usually gain acceptance to university, over 80 per cent of Kipp students have matriculated to higher education institutions."

Strictly come learning

But while these statistics have persuaded UK policymakers that we should imitate Kipp's model, one wonders if they have researched it in depth. First, Kipp schools are in effect selective, requiring parents and pupils to sign draconian contracts before they enter the school: only aspirational parents sign. Second, if a school fails to meet Kipp's standards, the Kipp Foundation has the right to sever its relationship with the school. "You have to deliver results, or it takes away the name," says one senior teacher. The foundation has so far ended its relationship with nine schools.
The pressure to get results in these schools is all-consuming. One overworked teacher said: "I can't do this job very much longer. It is too much. I don't see any solution with our structure and our non-negotiables." Kipp staff are seldom unionised and have little choice but to play by the rules. Given this, perhaps it is no surprise that staff turnover is high, with some schools losing half their staff every year.

If teachers have a hard time at these schools, what of the pupils? The evidence provided by inspectors suggests that pupils' experiences are mixed. Kipp schools are often authoritarian, demanding high levels of obedience, which is frequently manifested in the form of chants, songs, ritualised greetings and public humiliations. Much classroom time is conducted in silence, with pupils being shamed for the smallest of mistakes; in one account, a student was publicly reprimanded for missing out one full-stop in a piece of work. It appears that pupils are micro-managed to a prohibitive extent. One inspector reported: "At 9.35am, the school leader says 'Kipp one' and students respond, 'Be one.' She gives students seven seconds to put their morning work in their folder, close their folders, place their pencils on the side and put their name tags on."

Perhaps, given this, it's not surprising that half the teachers at a selection of Kipp schools told inspectors that maintaining discipline was challenging. On the flipside, students consistently report that the schools are "strict". "Here, it's very strict and it doesn't give us a lot of freedom, but it will get me to college," one student wrote.

Kipp schools are forbidding places because teachers prepare pupils for tests rather than fostering genuine learning. Surveys have shown that, at some Kipp schools, nearly 60 per cent of students don't believe that their lessons challenge their thinking.

“At some point, everyone at my school has thought about quitting," Josh Zoia, the founding principal of Kipp Academy Lynn in Boston, told me. "It's tough here. Kids get up at 5.30am, start school at 7.30am and finish at 5pm or 6pm, and then have two or three hours of homework. Then they go to bed. If I sat the kids down and asked them who has ever wanted to quit, every single kid's hand would go up. The staff's, too!" Although Zoia said his drop-out rates were low, some Kipp schools have reported that nearly half their pupils leave before making it to their final year.

The number of pupils at Kipp schools is relatively small compared with the total number attending charter schools in the US (more than 5,000 charter schools serve 1.5 million children). There are almost two decades of results that we can analyse to give a picture of their value. Contrary to what many policy-makers in Britain believe, the achievements of charter schools are poor. The biggest non-partisan analysis of the schools, conducted by Stanford University, found that their performance on average is significantly worse than that of their "state-run" counterparts. The study shows that 17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than those of state schools; 46 per cent
showed no difference; and 37 per cent were significantly worse than their regular state-school counterparts.

In the UK, the news is even more depressing. Private firms are profiting at the expense of our children. A recent answer to the Labour MP Karen Buck's parliamentary question revealed that city academies have wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Sponsors now clog up the governing bodies and executive boards of many academies. These schools are answerable not to their pupils, parents or local communities, but to the companies that back them. There are many disturbing consequences that flow from this. For example, many of these schools do not seem to care about the effects that excluding troubled children might have on their local area: academies exclude twice as many pupils as their local-
authority equivalents.

As with US charter schools, while there may be individual success stories, overall performance is poor. On average, children attending academies have worse prospects than their peers at community schools. According to league tables published in January, 41 of the 301 schools under threat of closure for failing to meet GCSE exam targets the previous summer were academies; this, even though most children enrolled in academies spend considerably more time there than pupils do in other schools.

Big Finns

Our politicians have not done enough homework. Finland, which has the best schools in the world by all measures, is a country where all pupils attend local, non-selective schools. The Finnish system is very much like the one that the Campaign for State Education (Case) has been advocating for years. In Finland, properly resourced comprehensives have thrived, full of well-trained teachers and without selective schools to compete against.

As Case has pointed out, one important fact is being ignored by all our politicians: that comprehensives succeed in a fair system, when they are not forced to compete with schools that have taken the best pupils either through explicit or back-door selection. Schools very much like Kipp schools - grammar and faith schools, and academies - all have much more freedom to admit pupils they like the look of. Case's research has shown that schools which set their own admissions policies take the socially advantaged pupils (who do well no matter where they go because they have supportive parents) and leave non-selective schools to suffer.

Instead of wasting billions implementing failed, free-market policies that benefit a wealthy elite, we must make sure that all children are educated to the highest standards. The methods used by the likes of the Kipp schools must not be encouraged in the way that our political parties appear keen to do. We must end back-door selection and the manipulation of results if we are to raise standards across the board. Why are none of the political parties saying this?

Francis Gilbert's latest book is "Working the System: How to Get the Very Best State Education for Your Child" (Short Books, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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