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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge