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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood