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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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

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