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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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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