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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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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “Apple” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.