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Labour should support free schools — it invented them

The party will get back into government by having a better plan for the future, not by opposing chan

The party will get back into government by having a better plan for the future, not by opposing changes that are working well

Free schools are Labour's invention. They were a crucial part of our drive to promote equality of opportunity and social mobility, particularly in disadvantaged communities with low educational standards. Independent report after report has shown that they work, and most of them are wildly popular with parents, so the issue for Labour is how we take them forward, not whether we are for or against them.

Just to be clear about the parentage, free schools are simply – and legally – academies without an immediate predecessor state school. They are either new academies starting from scratch in terms of pupils and teachers, or private schools coming into the state-funded sector by means of academy legal status.

Free schools are established and funded in exactly the same way as other academies, under a contract with the Department for Education, which regulates their funding, governance, admissions and other essential features. They are inspected by Ofsted, and publicly accountable, in the same way as other academies are, too.

Labour set up dozens such "free school" academies before 2010. The only reason why the Tories invented the term "free school" was to pretend they were doing something fundamentally different, instead of continuing one of Labour's most successful policies. The big changes of Tory education policy in opposition were to drop selection and the pledge to create new grammar schools. They did this under pressure because of the success of academies in creating a consensus that all-ability schools can achieve just as much but are far fairer, provided they are managed and led effectively.

Mossbourne, flagship of the academy fleet and a catalyst for the transformation of the secondary education system in Hackney and much of inner London, is a free school. Its outstanding founder principal, Michael Wilshaw, became chief inspector of schools at the start of this year because of his work at Mossbourne – a formidable compliment to Labour's free school policy.

The Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, up there with Mossbourne among the most inspirational all-ability comprehensives in England, is a free school. It was the first independent school to come into the state sector under the academies programme (in 2007), dropping all fees and the eleven-plus and becoming a community comprehensive in admissions while retaining its independent governance. It was a catalyst for a string of other excellent private schools to become academies, which all also dropped selection and fees. More are following suit under the "free school" label. This is profoundly in the national interest, to promote educational quality and equality, which is what Labour stands for.

Let's be clear about three other points. First, free schools are not-for-profit. The Tories would need to change the law to allow profit-making, and I would oppose this.

Second, free schools are comprehensive schools. Like all academies, they are not allowed to select by academic ability. Again, this is the law and I would oppose any change.

Third, despite Michael Gove's rhetoric, the word "free" applies only to the academy-style freedoms in the way free schools are managed. There is no "free" right to establish them. On the contrary, as under Labour, few proposals to set up such schools succeed, and the successful ones are chosen by the government on the basis of need for good school places as well as the quality of management and innovation that the promoter credibly promises.

To succeed in principled politics, you need to understand the country and how to change it better than the other side. In education, the position is this. The school system was greatly improved by Labour's 13 years of investment and reform, but it needs at least as much reform and improvement again over the next decade.

It is still the case today that only six in ten 16-year-olds achieve a decent GCSE standard, compared to between eight and nine in ten reaching an equivalent standard in leading systems abroad, including Singapore, Finland and South Korea. And China is advancing fast, producing as many graduates this year as England has school-age children (more than seven million).

No school can be better than its teachers. In the quality of teacher recruitment and training, Labour again brought about significant improvement but England still lags far behind the world leaders. The best education systems in other countries attract ten or more applications for each graduate teacher training place. In England it is barely two per post, and for maths it is barely 1.5.

There are still too few outstandingly good schools nationwide, particularly in disadvantaged areas. This is deeply felt – desperately felt – by all too many parents, and Labour must continue to be on their side.

The way to create more great schools is partly by improving teacher recruitment radically, partly by improving the leadership of existing schools radically, and partly by setting up entirely new schools with the right values, teaching and leadership to succeed. Free schools are vital to the third of these priorities.

But what type of free schools? The early Tory rhetoric about the new schools claimed that they would be "parent-led". In reality, very few parents want to take on the job of setting up a school and governing it. What virtually all parents want is a good school, run by professionals in whom they have confidence.

Inevitably, therefore, a mere handful of free schools is being set up by parent groups. But parent groups can be highly effective sponsors, as is proving the case with the West London Free School, established by the journalist Toby Young and fellow parents in Hammersmith. Having visited WLFS, I say simply that Labour would be mad to propose to abolish it. The quality of teaching and leadership is very good, and the intake reflective of the local community. Tellingly, several of the parent-promoters are also teachers.

WLFS, together with the nearby Hammersmith Academy, a free school established under Labour and sponsored jointly by the Information Technologists' Company and the Mercers' livery company (which also sponsors the outstanding Thomas Telford city technology college in Shropshire), are new model community comprehensives helping to redress the large outflow of Hammersmith children to private schools and to state schools outside the borough. It is especially bizarre that WLFS has been criticised for teaching Latin. Why should children have to go to private schools such as the Latymer Upper School next door, with its fees of £15,000 a year, to learn Latin? And why should we accept that children are unable to learn Latin in the state system and, therefore, that classicists entering top universities overwhelmingly come from public schools?

Intensive preparation

Most free schools are being established by existing enterprises, including successful academies and academy sponsors such as Ark and Mossbourne. This is to the good.

More than half of Labour's "free school" academies were in London, where the shortage of good-quality schools was acute. Nearly half of the coalition government's first 24 free schools are located in the capital for the same reason. Labour's free schools are located largely in areas of very high deprivation, selected with a relentless focus on overcoming disadvantage. Here the Tories are less focused, and we should criticise them accordingly.

Yet there is much outstanding work by free schools to address such inequalities and Labour should be championing this. Peter Hyman – remember him as an architect of New Labour? – is building a fine new enterprise in School 21 ("for success in the 21st century") in Newham, east London, with the strong support of Robin Wales, Newham's Labour mayor. Ed Vainker's Reach Academy in Feltham, Middlesex, the Greenwich Free School and the Durand Academy in Lambeth are all pioneered by leaders passionate in their social mission.

Tellingly, Vainker and some of the Greenwich Free School team are alumni of Teach First, which recruits top graduates to teach in challenging schools and was another of Labour's achievements in government. Hyman is an alumnus of Future Leaders, an impressive charity established in 2006, which has a mission to develop the next generation of leaders for challenging schools. Future Leaders talent-spots the most able up-and-coming teachers in these schools and prepares them intensively for headship within four years.

Hyman wants his free school to break away from "the tired old model of one teacher and 30 children sitting in rows waiting for the next pearl of wisdom". His free school intends to put literacy, debate, discussion and commu­nication skills at the centre of its curriculum, including new ideas such as the use of Harkness tables (large, oval tables around which a dozen or so students and their teacher interact, seminar-style).

School 21, WLFS and many other free schools are all-through, catering for children aged three to 18. Again, this builds on bold changes under Labour. Thirty of Labour's academies are all-through; before academies, there were virtually no all-through state schools. Indeed, state schools were largely banned from extending their age range – another example of the stifling effect of over-regulation in the world before academies – despite evidence that changing schools at age 11 can disrupt a child's education.

Durand intends to innovate still further as a free school, extending its existing primary school by building a boarding academy in West Sussex to which its pupils will move, as weekly boarders, from the age of 13. There will be no fees, a longer school day and a far broader curriculum than in most comprehensives. Again, this is brilliant innovation, building on both Labour's all-through academies and our boarding academies.

Then there is technical education. JCB Academy, a successful Labour free school near JCB's headquarters site in Staffordshire, provides an engineering-focused curriculum for pupils who, by their mid-secondary years, want to follow this route. It is the prototype for the university technical colleges (another variant of academy), whose mission is to transform the teaching of technical disciplines and skills in the state system. Again, Labour should be in strong support here.

This isn't only about engineering. Birmingham Ormiston Academy – another Labour free school – opened last year. It offers a performing arts and digital skills curriculum for 14-to-19-year-olds, modelled on the hugely successful BRIT School in Croydon, south London, one of the original city technology colleges, whose alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J and Leona Lewis. My aim was for there to be an equivalent of the BRIT School in every region of England, and Labour should be proposing this.

Hands-on

There are also the "studio schools" – small, secondary-age academies of no more than 300 pupils – which are yet another variant on the academy being taken forward by free schools. Barnfield Studio School, one of the first, opened in Luton in 2010 with a mission to promote practical skills and good qualifications among teenagers who could easily fail in an ordinary secondary school. It is pioneering what it calls "a hands-on approach to skills", with project work and part of the week spent under super­vision at local businesses. We need far more studio schools, too, particularly for teenagers in danger of dropping out of more conventional schools and academies.

Labour needs to focus the free schools debate on how the party can address disadvantage in bold new ways and provide vital innovation for the future. We also need to talk credibly and constructively about priorities in matters where the Tories are in the wrong place and are deeply complacent. Teacher recruitment and development, the curriculum, Sure Start and the replacement policy that will be needed for £9,000 university tuition fees are all in this category.

Labour will get back into government by having a better plan for the future, not by opposing changes which are working well. This applies above all in education, which is one of our success stories.

Andrew Adonis was minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. His book on future policy, "Education, Education, Education", will appear later this year.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy has responded here: "Why Labour should not embrace free schools".

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?

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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.

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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?

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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