Selling off the schools system

Michael Gove says his education policies will help Britain’s poorest pupils, but will they just comp

Are we witnessing a new schools revolution? If so, it has got off to a shaky start. This summer, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was forced to retract overblown claims about the new academies and then apologise for his careless announcements on funding cuts to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. As the new term began, few schools had completed the application process to become academies. And only 16 "free schools" will be opening in 2011.

But if Gove's interview in last week's NS is anything to go by, the coalition is hiding its disappointment well. Gove is particularly skilful at deploying egalitarian language to promote what many see as a subtly divisive agenda, in which thousands of maintained schools in poorer areas could be left struggling from funding cuts and competition from government-favoured independent state schools. The resulting problems in local schools will surely be blamed on Labour, New and Old.

The Academies Act, enabling the conversion of schools into academies, is now law - it was pushed through with unseemly haste in late July. Behind the scenes, Department for Edu­cation officials have apparently been offering head teachers "help and advice" on the merits of conversion.

Many schools are now in a difficult position. As one chair of governors of an outstanding urban secondary school told me: "Nobody thinks that academy status itself will improve our position, or bemoaning the local authority either - but we are facing real cuts in funding and the possibility of redundancies. It's purely about money." She said she had worked out that her school would receive an extra £1.2m if it became an academy, though roughly half of that would be spent on buying back services.

Despite the fanfare about the new pupil premium, details of which will be announced this autumn, few heads of schools with high numbers of children on free school meals - and therefore likely to benefit from the premium - believe that this will make up even a small proportion of the shortfall in funding cuts from other sources.

According to Councillor Mary Arnold, lead member for children and families in Brent, north London, there is a fear of reductions in funding for local authorities' central services, which support special-needs education, school improvement and curriculum and professional development. "The dilemma for governors could be: if one school becomes an academy, will there be anything left for central services and, by implication, for our school?" she says.

Meanwhile, the lure of a new free school may prove tempting to a few ambitious or worried parents, especially - as Gove seems to suggest in his NS interview - as we move closer to a crude schools market in which parents, frequently unaware of the complex funding and admissions priorities that shape our hierarchical and unequal education system, are simply encouraged to "choose to shop at Waitrose rather than Tesco". Not a word about those who do end up at Tesco, to use this snobbish comparison, nor the many thousands more who might actually trust in central government to provide a decent school in every neighbourhood.

Arnold fears that, in Brent, "groups of pro­fessionals and parents will be bidding [for free schools] like Toby Young's group in Ealing, as they can't get their children into good local schools. There will also be interest from groups whose children usually underachieve."

The government insists that all schools, bar the existing grammars that convert to academies, will be "all-ability" schools and retain an admissions code. Yet many fear a future relaxation of admissions policy, meaning schools could quickly be pitted against one another in a scramble to win the so-called best pupils. The losers here would undoubtedly be the disadvantaged pupils, bar the very brightest, who would be siphoned into the new academies and free schools.

Arnold also fears further segregation along class and ethnic lines, given that evidence from the Swedish free schools "shows that ethnic-minority-based schools become segregated in the second generation".

So what role will private companies play in the new school set-up? Astonishingly, 75 per cent of Swedish free schools are run for profit. In the UK, companies such as Pearson, Serco, Tribal, Nord Anglia, Edison Learning, Cambridge Education and even the Premier League have expressed an interest in running schools or providing support services in the sector. Gems, the world's biggest provider of independent education abroad, now run by the former Ofsted chair Zenna Atkins, says that several groups have already approached it.

Jon Berry, an education campaigner based in Hertfordshire, is fighting against the encroachment of Kunskapsskolan, a private company that runs 32 schools in Sweden. It has taken over its first UK academy in Richmond, west London, and has also expressed an interest in several schools in the Hertfordshire area. According to Berry, it is "offering not-for-profit services but it's pretty clear that it has a profit agenda down the line. It pays its teachers by exam results and, as in the academies, tears up [national agreements on] teachers' pay and conditions." The challenge is to get parents to see that "these schools offer no clear benefit to them. But you can understand why working-class communities might say: 'We'll grab whatever is going.'"

So where is the opposition to the plans coming from? This month, the increasingly effective Anti Academies Alliance will be launching a campaign called A Fight for Every School, which supports local resistance to plans to convert schools to academy status without proper consultation. Public anger has undoubtedly been fuelled by the cuts to BSF funding and Gove's telling lack of care with detail.

As for Labour, Ed Balls did a credible job of opposing the Academies Bill and BSF cuts, but the party is compromised by its pro-market, pro-choice line of the Blair years and by its failure to support local authorities as leading players in providing high-quality local provision.

The coming political struggle is not, as the coalition would have it, between stifling centralisation and the local freedom to flourish. After all, academies and free schools will be accountable to central government and their private paymasters only. Similarly, support for freedom of heads and teachers is entirely compatible with democratic accountability and a strong role for the local authority.

Polls consistently show that parents are far happier with local schools than the press leads us to believe; moreover new studies, such as one by Bristol University released last month, indicate a shift in public mood and that most people would be happy with less choice and for the state to make big decisions for them. There is a sober case for more planning and investment (and higher taxation) in the interests of both fairness and improved school quality. But who in the current climate has the political courage to make that kind of alternative argument?

Melissa Benn's book on education "The New Class Wars" will be published by Verso in 2011

We don't need new education

In the run-up to the general election, the Conservative Party promised to provide 220,000 new school places over the next ten years.

Once the Tories got into power, legislation enabling the creation of free schools and the conversion of successful state schools into academies was introduced in the Commons, and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that more than 1,000 schools had already expressed an interest in converting.

Gove was forced to back down quickly on this claim after publication of the full list of schools made it clear that many were simply "registering an interest". The Academies Act is now law, but so far only 153 schools have definitely announced plans to enter the scheme, almost all of them in better-off parts of the country.

The free schools have run into similar problems. The New Schools Network, an organisation awarded £500,000 by the coalition to speed up the process, has indicated that up to 700 groups have been in touch from around the country.

However, recent press reports suggest that, despite enthusiastic government backing and the relaxation of critical planning regulations, only 16 will open in September 2011. Some high-profile projects are among those facing delays, including the Bolingbroke Academy in Wandsworth, south-west London.

Melissa Benn

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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