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 humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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