Lucy Heller runs ARK Schools, arguably the most successful academy chain in the country. Photo: Getty.
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"What I want to see is peace": When will Labour stop opposing academies?

Labour's unclear opposition to academies could drag high-performing chains like ARK back under local bureaucracy.

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At the start of his book on education, the Labour peer and former minister Andrew Adonis recounts one “drizzling autumn morning in 2000” when he visited the “deserted, dilapidated and vandalised” ruins of Hackney Downs School.

The visit was one of Adonis’ first since launching a new policy late in Tony Blair’s first term. The idea was to rid Britain of inner-city comprehensives like Hackney Downs and replace them with a new type of school: “academies”.

Adonis ended up spending the next eight years shepherding the project through the obfuscation and objection of teaching unions, many local education authorities, and parts of the civil service.

The programme is still controversial despite years of success.

Fourteen years later, the programme is still controversial despite years of success. Once restricted to setting up no more than ten new academies a year, Adonis left in 2008 with more than 100 open and 300 in the pipeline; seven years later around 60 per cent of British secondary schools are now academies.

But while Adonis oversaw the process, Lucy Heller is one of the key people who created the schools he envisioned. She is in her eleventh year as director of ARK schools, arguably the most successful academy “chain” in the country. The group manages nearly three dozen schools, and hopes to soon open its 50th.

Its results make clear why.

11 of its schools had a GCSE cohort in 2014. Of them, eight can be compared to a predecessor school which ARK replaced. Three others are schools which ARK has set up independently; which they term “free” schools (while they are set up through slightly different processes, there is, as the BBC and New Schools Network have detailed, "essentially" no difference between academies and free schools once established).

Comparing ARK’s 11 schools to their predecessors paints a clear picture. Their five longest running schools, all to the left of the graph, have dramatically improved the results of the schools they replaced.

In these schools ARK has had a number of years to improve on the performance of their predecessor – and has consistently done so. Burlington, to the left of the graph, is one of ARK’s oldest schools; their first GCSE year was in 2007. And for the past five years at least two-thirds of its students have received five “good” (A*-C) GCSEs.

All of the schools ARK has run for more than three years – Burlington, Walworth, Globe, Charter and St Alban’s – are above the 50 per cent level, and Charter’s turnaround has been unstinting.

Their three other converter schools are yet to improve on their predecessors, but are only in their first or second year since converting. Of the three new schools, King Soloman’s first time results were among the top 150 in the country, and inspired a section-leading feature in the Economist this month.

Overall ARK’s results are only in line with the national average, with around 58 per cent of pupils managing 5 good GCSEs. But that ignores the type of students Ark takes on: the majority of them are on free school meals – three times the national average – and ARK often picks up the education of these pupils with them more than a year behind on learning to read, write or add up.

These statistics are necessary because so much opposition to free schools and academies seems to ignore facts. The program is the decade-long project of a Labour minister who wanted to reinvent the comprehensive, not a ploy by Michael Gove to privatise British education.

But how has ARK succeeded? “The danger is that you come down to what sound like trite or facile formulas”, Lucy Heller tells me, when we meet in ARK’s spacious offices on Kingsway, the western border of London’s Covent Garden, in early September. She is cheered by this year’s results, which are less than a week old.

One idea she quickly focuses on is expectations. “Nobody but nobody boasts of their low expectations, but it all depends on what you mean.”

ARK has consistently improved on schools it has replaced after a few years.

At a lot of the schools ARK takes over, there is a “social worker approach to education”. There’s a “notion that, ‘What you can expect? These children are poor’”. To Heller, it’s “one of my issues with the left, which I count myself part of”. Instead, a strong and supportive central governor, which is what ARK effectively is, should demand performance.

“Ours is a harder job, but the 'starting point is saying it can be done'.” Not every school Heller took over was receptive.

“If you look at a school like St Alban’s, which is one of our Birmingham schools, when we first started discussions with them, they were at 14 per cent [of pupils managing five good GCSEs]. It was, and had been for a long time, a very successful school; it really worked in very challenging circumstances. They actually got the results up to 31 per cent just before they became an academy.

“But when we had the first conversation with staff, I remember saying ‘Look within five years of becoming an academy we would expect you to aspire to an 80 per cent pass rate… and you’d see 100 Brummie arms cross, saying ‘I don’t think so’.”

The staff wanted to settle for 29 per cent – in line with the previous year’s results. ARK compromised at 40 per cent. In the end, with guidance from ARK’s then-head of education, Michael Wilshaw, now chief inspector of Ofsted, 50 per cent of St Alban’s pupils made the grade, despite being taught by the same staff and, unusually, the same head.

In the four years since then 60 per cent of St Alban’s pupils have managed the “passport” of five good GCSEs – twice as many as annually did when ARK took over the school. “To be fair to them, we haven’t actually succeeded” at getting to 80 per cent, Heller notes.

But such stories give credibility to Heller’s emphasis on expectations.

“It's about creating an environment in which child can learn. Even the low-level disruption creates a culture in which it's very hard.”

"There isn't a kind of magic winding mill that turns out little robots who don't have any empathy or social skills or whatever."

“I'm the product of a not great London comprehensive, and I can still remember the shock of going to the local girls' grammar school – and this is upper-sixth to sit exams for Oxbridge – and sitting in an exam and the teacher went out the room and looking up, because the automatic assumption [I had] was to talk.”

No one else did. The culture was to work.

Heller is wary of trite formulas, but are ARK’s guiding principles – "Exemplary behaviour", "Excellent teaching", "Depth before breadth" – not self-evident?

“Lots of people still would disagree… with that account of what's important.” They would “bridle at the idea of ‘depth before breadth’”, and suggest you “have to deal with the whole child… that strict behaviour is repressive.” But “I think actually we are with the French in thinking structure liberates.”

Does focusing on the fundamentals risk creating limited children equipped to pass exams but without the character to thrive? Heller is “deeply sceptical” on the dichotomy.

"There isn't a kind of magic winding mill that turns out little robots who don't have any empathy or social skills or whatever. And certainly schools that fail to produce results are very rarely… it seems to be then it's because they're turning out great characterful individuals."

The wider case Heller might have made is that by getting the basics right, ARK can then offer the breadth that the country’s best – and often private – schools offer. ARK’s website is filled with news of students performing Shakespeare, hosting basketball stars and hearing from guest speakers.

But while these issues may concern educationalists, the greatest opposition to academies is over the way they are managed, regulated and inspected. Governance is unglamorous and complicated but academies have made many opponents sudden experts.

Ed Miliband seems to be among them. Labour are, according to their website, proposing to:

“Introduce robust local oversight of all schools through new Directors of School Standards in every local area.”

Doing so could easily create a new layer of bureaucracy in local areas, and strangle academy chains like ARK which have prospered without new and vague “Directors”. It’s unclear whether the plans would leave governors “unambiguously in control”, which Heller stresses is vital.

Labour claims that the coalition have tried to “run thousands of schools from Whitehall”.

Labour claims that the coalition have tried to “run thousands of schools from Whitehall”, despite the Conservatives expanding a decade-old Labour policy which frees them from central command. Claims like this are a reminder of the conservative element in the Labour movement, which Adonis spent years appeasing.

To be more sympathetic, the coalition have also added a new form of 'middle-tier' regulation for academies, by creating a handful of "Regional School Commissioners". Do Labour's plans differ greatly? Well, as Laura McInerney, deputy editor of Academies Weekhas noted, there would be far 'Directors' than RSCs, and the appointment process for them would leave "academies out in the cold". It's an "unwieldy" number which could make for a "headache of implementation".

The details are complicated, but Labour's stance is scarcely encouraging for an academy chain like ARK. There is little recognition from Miliband, their website or Tristram Hunt, their shadow education secretary, that academies have been a success.

It's unclear whether Hunt will adhere to the rhetoric of his party's more aggressive wing, but Heller is confident.

“I believe, possibly naively, if you build a great school, no politician will close it down…I want to be measured on outcomes.”

Going by results, it seems implausible that Labour could spend their precious early years in government re-regulating ARK or the academy sector. They have already committed to “transform vocational education”, with new and “rigorous qualifications” – a challenge which almost every government of the past 30 years has taken on. They won’t have the time to do both.

The party’s official stance may have much to do with the unpopularity of Michael Gove. Heller does think he became an unhelpful flag-bearer for the policy.

“One of my frustrations with Gove would be, once you got past some of the early days, actually there is a real middle ground where there a lot of people saying education needs reform… they may come from very different positions… but there's a large group in the middle.

“What Michael Gove did, particularly towards the end of his time, was ruthlessly reject support from those deemed to not be true believers."

Now she hopes both parties will "calm down some of the rhetoric". “What I want to see is peace,” she tells me. It’s not clear whether Ed Miliband will have the courage to tell his base what many in his party believe: academies are a success to be developed, not a Tory trick to be attacked.


Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide