Shrinking horizons: new comprehensives such as this co-educational secondary school in Islington are an increasingly rare sight (Credit: VIEW PICTURES)
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

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