Shrinking horizons: new comprehensives such as this co-educational secondary school in Islington are an increasingly rare sight (Credit: VIEW PICTURES)
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Ten things they don't tell you about academies

Inconvenient truths about the academy revolution.

While all eyes are on the coalition's NHS reforms, Michael Gove's schools revolution continues apace with little discussion. Some on the left have raised objections to the creation of "free schools" - those new schools set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities and voluntary groups and funded by the Department for Education - and argue that they will lead to a two-tier, socially segregated system.

But it's the rise and rise of academies that is the real cause for concern. Academies are, to all intents and purposes, state-funded independent schools outside local authority control and the National Curriculum, which receive their funding directly from central government. As of March 2012, there were 1,635 academies in England, compared to 24 free schools. Most of them opened their doors from September 2010 onwards, with the blessing and encouragement of coalition ministers. More than 1.2 million pupils - one in seven pupils in state schools - now attend academies. Gove has said that the push to increase the number of academy schools "is not about ideology. It's an evidence-based, practical solution." Really?Here are ten things he and his supporters don't tell you.

1 Children's crusade

To pretend this isn't about ideology or political dogma is absurd. Under Labour, the academies programme was focused narrowly on transforming "failing" schools in deprived neighbourhoods.

Under the current coalition, however, all schools - primary and secondary, good and bad, rich and poor - are supposed to become academies and compete with each other. Schools rated "outstanding" by Ofsted are fast-tracked through the process.

But will such an ambitious and untested project improve standards? "Many of the academies established so far are performing impressively in delivering the intended improvements," observed Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, in September 2010. "It cannot be assumed, however, that academies' performance to date is an accurate predictor of how the model will perform when generalised more widely."

2 The million-pound drop

Why is it that so many schools are opting to convert to academy status? Follow the money. Academy status brings a cash boost of roughly 10 per cent or more. In addition to the basic funding that the schools would have received from local authorities, new academies also get
a top-up called Lacseg (Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant), which is allocated to them on the basis of how many pupils they happen to have.

In March 2011, a survey of 1,471 head teachers by the Association of School and College Leaders showed that nearly half (46 per cent) had converted their school to academy status, or intended to do so. Three out of four were driven by the belief that such a move would benefit their schools financially, not educationally.

3 Respect my authority!

Despite all the Tory talk about empowering local communities, the academies programme places huge power in the hands of the Education Secretary in Whitehall, while severing schools' links with democratically elected local authorities. During the passage of the Academies Bill through parliament in 2010, David Wolfe, an education barrister at Matrix Chambers, described the reforms as "undemocratic" because "nobody, apart from the Education Secretary and the governors, will be able to stop the process" of local authority schools becoming academies. There is no requirement to consult parents, or staff, or anyone else.

Protesting parents of pupils at Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, north London, have found this out the hard way. They say the government is "forcing" academy status on the school, against their wishes and those of the wider community. Gove dismisses them as "Trots". So much for the "big society".

4 Dunce's corner

Supporters of academies often claim that they outperform their non-academy equivalents in the rest of the state sector. Yet a recent analysis of Department for Education figures by the Local Schools Network pressure group showed how 60 per cent of pupils in non-academy schools attained five A* to C-grade GCSEs in 2011, compared to just 47 per cent in the (then) 249 sponsored academies.

Writing in the Guardian in January, Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector of Ofsted and former head teacher of the much-acclaimed Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, conceded: "Last year alone 85 schools serving the most deprived communities in our society were judged to be providing outstanding education . . . let me be clear: the vast majority of these schools are not academies. They are simply schools with heads and staff focused on the right things, striving every day to provide the best possible education for their young people."

5 Vocation, vocation . . .

And how reliable are these fantastic exam results that some academies produce? According to an analysis of league table data by Terry Wrigley, editor of the international journal Improving Schools and visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, the "excessive" use of vocational equivalents has been "inflating" the results of England's academy schools.

Wrigley's research shows that two out of three academies (68 per cent) conveniently rely more heavily on vocational qualifications than the average state school, thereby "creating a false impression that they are successful".

In fact, when these GCSE "equivalent qualifications" are excluded from the results, the proportion of students in academies achieving five GCSEs including English and maths fell by almost 12 per cent - or twice the national average. The fact is that academies, as even the centre-right think tank Civitas has acknowledged, are "inadequately academic".

6 Squeezed till it hurts

Academies operate outside local authority control and have the freedom to set their own levels of pay for staff, including teachers. Most academy pay scales tend not to vary much from national norms - although head teachers and their deputies in some cases can secure supersize salaries - but conditions can differ. According to a report by the Times Education Supplement: "Some academies require staff to be available during the school holidays, while others put no upper limit on working hours."

Anti-academy campaigners fear that the freedom to set pay and conditions will become the freedom to squeeze pay and conditions. "You need to study the contract," says Andrew Morris, the expert on the topic at the National Union of Teachers. "In return for a salary just a little above national scale, you may be giving away some fundamental rights and benefits."

7 We're broke - fix us

Are academies value for money? In January, the Financial Times reported that eight academies in financial difficulty had been bailed out by a Department for Education quango over the past 18 months, at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £11m. "Civil servants are increasingly worried about the lack of close supervision and sustained support for the schools - the so-called 'middle tier' problem," wrote the paper's education correspondent Chris Cook.

The whole point of academies is that the schools should manage themselves without local authority support. Yet as Philip White, chief executive of Syscap, the independent finance company that calculated the bailout figure, has noted: "Schools take the role of the local authorities for granted. Cutting the apron strings is not a simple process and will require schools to adopt behaviours which are not natural to them."

8 Billy no-mates

So far, despite the fawning coverage that it has received in much of the press, Gove's schools revolution is not popular with the public. According to a YouGov poll carried out last month, 27 per cent of voters think that turning more schools into academies will raise educational standards. On the other hand, 53 per cent of voters think that academies will either "make standards worse" (24 per cent) or "make no difference" (29 per cent).

Moreover, fewer than one in four voters (23 per cent) think free schools will drive up standards - and fewer than one in three (28 per cent) support the government's decision to allow profit-making private companies to manage these new institutions.

9 Face doesn't fit

In January, a damning investigation by BBC2's Newsnight highlighted the practice of "unofficial exclusion"- that is, the quiet, below-the-radar process of easing out troublesome pupils who might undermine an academy's stability and all-important position in the school league tables. The Newsnight report cited comments made by Gary Phillips, head teacher of the Lillian Baylis Technology School, a local authority college in south London, which every year has to take in new pupils from academies.

“Many of them are seeking to move because of what I often call 'the dark arts'," Phillips said. "They've been asked to move rather than be permanently excluded; they've been ignored for a few months on study leave, or ignored in a study support centre."

Education lawyers worry that academies' much-lauded league table successes come at the expense of their most vulnerable pupils.

10 In detention

We hear a great deal from the Department for Education about the success stories - the oversubscribed Mossbourne, the network of high-performing academies set up by Ark Schools and the rest - but have you, say, heard of Birkdale High School in Southport, Merseyside, which only converted to an academy in August 2011? Last month, it was deemed "inadequate" and placed in special measures by Ofsted because of failures that inspectors identified during a visit in December.

It isn't an isolated case. In January, Ofsted inspectors told the Sir Robert Woodard Academy in Lancing, West Sussex, that it was "failing" and put the school into special measures - only two years after it opened. The inconvenient truth is that academy status is no guarantee of academic success.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times