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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge