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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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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