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Gove's free schools policy is already in trouble

Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated.

From the outset, the coalition's support of free schools was heralded as its defining education policy. Groups of parents, teachers or community members would be given the power and resources to set up their own schools, particularly in areas of high social deprivation. These groups would sweep aside the concerns of the bureaucratic local authorities and build pioneering institutions that would help lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. In June 2010, Gove said that the principle behind free schools was "closing the attainment gap" between the poorest and richest students.

A year later, we learned that there were 323 free school proposals but only 40 groups received the go-ahead: nine out of ten proposals were rejected. Four free schools are expected to open in September. The former Labour adviser Peter Hyman is now aiming to set up one in east London. Considering that there are 20,000 state schools in England and the approved free schools add up to just 0.2 per cent of this, it's a droplet in the ocean. By my estimate, they will take in no more than 4,000 children - 2 per cent of Gove's initial target of 200,000. This statistic alone indicates that the policy has failed. Even if every free school were stuffed with poor children, the total number would amount to a tiny fraction of the four million children living in poverty. Given Gove's stated intention to close the attainment gap, it's worth asking how many free schools will serve our poorest children.

My analysis indicates very few. First, of the 40 approved schools, six are currently private; there is no reason to believe that their intake will change significantly when they become state-funded. Furthermore, 11 of the schools are religious, catering for the Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian faiths. Research carried out by the Campaign for State Education indicates that faith schools tend to attract children from prosperous backgrounds.

Nearly a third of free schools will be run by private companies. Educational chains such as Ark, Harris and E-Act have been running inner-city academies for years but are now part of the free schools programme in a big way. A parent-led group behind an unsuccessful application to become a free school lamented that going with a private provider was the "only game in town". Such companies are used to working with poorer pupils but a close analysis of their methods shows that their achievements are patchy. Many rely on vocational qualifications, excluding undesirable students and cherry-picking the brightest pupils to boost results.

Just four of the approved schools meet Gove's initial criteria for free schools: local parents setting up schools to help poor children. But even these are open to question. The BBG Parents' Alliance's school in Kirklees is a bona fide effort by parents to establish a school in their deprived community. Yet a report published the Department for Education (DfE) last year said that the 900-pupil institution will create a surplus of school places in the area. The millions spent on the BBG free school could also be more fairly distributed among existing local schools.

Cloak and dagger

For such a tiny programme, despite what seemed like efforts by the government to hide the figures, we know the free schools project is proving expensive: 97 civil servants are working on it, the New Schools Network has been given £500,000 to promote its cause, and many others, such as the free schools founders and private companies, are almost certainly in receipt of considerable sums, as yet undisclosed.

As nearly every free school's unique selling point is small class sizes, we also know that they are going to be very expensive to staff. This isn't even counting the capital costs of the buildings to house such schools. The DfE has refused all Freedom of Information requests for us to know these - even when presented as parliamentary questions - but we know that they are going to be high. In February, the Today programme reported that the cost of one school is going to be £15m.

The DfE's reluctance to reveal the costs signals another problem: the general cloak-and-dagger secrecy surrounding the project. Even the parents wanting to set up free schools are frustrated. One free school campaigner told me: "Our biggest concern is the lack of transparency in decision-making at the DfE. Policy is being made up on the hoof. There appears to be no strategic consideration of where new schools are needed." On top of this, there are concerns that because "amateur" parents are in charge and untrained teachers are allowed to teach, standards will be low.

The discontent is widespread. Commenters on the Local Schools Network website express concern that free schools will increase social segregation and suck resources away from existing institutions. In many cases, the programme involves taking resources from our poorest children in local authority schools and giving them to a privileged few. Small though it is, the free schools policy is already proving a disaster.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher. He blogs for the Local Schools Network and is the author of "The Last Day of Term", to be published in July by Short Books (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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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