Right to reply: in defence of academies

Academies are transforming education in the most deprived communities.

It's a shame that Mehdi Hasan didn't come to my department to check the figures he used in his academies article (playground tactics?). He is entitled to his opinion but we could have helped him make his piece factually correct.

For a start his description of academy funding is incorrect. Per-pupil funding for academies is based on exactly the same formula as other local schools. The difference is that all the money intended for the schools goes straight to it rather than a percentage - which varies enormously - being held back by the local authority. They can then use that money to buy services from the local authority or from another provider if that offers better value for money.

He then misrepresented the situation in Haringey. I think we need to be honest about standards at Downhills School. Their results have been below the national floor standards for four out of the last five years. The school had a notice to improve from Ofsted and was then placed in special measures after their last inspection. An Ofsted inspection carried out last month found it was "failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement".

How has Hasan, who believes in social justice, found himself on the side of people defending failure for the most deprived communities?

He is also wrong with regards to teachers' pay and exam results. Contrary to what he says, teachers pay is not lower in academies. Big academy chains are doing incredible work to provide extra training and professional development to their staff. If he had spoken to academies and their teachers, he would have heard a different story.

He has used flimsy data to attack academy results. Based on the latest data available, the free school meal pupils attending academies are improving faster than similar pupils in all other schools. This bears repeating - children from the poorest families are doing better in academies. Isn't that a cause for celebration? It is also a fact that as academies become more established they move to more academic subjects. And, of course, many students have already taken their GCSE options before their schools become an academy, so the longer term trend presents a more complete picture.

He quotes figures supposedly showing a supposed lack of public support for academies as an abstract concept. But in the real world, pupils and their parents are voting with their feet.

At Mossbourne Academy, whose predecessor was described as the "worst school in Britain" a total of 1,587 children have applied for 200 places this year.

Academies run by Ark have seen a huge rise in applications, with six children applying for each place at Ark Academy in Wembley. The Harris Academies chain had four applications for every place across all of their schools - schools which had been undersubscribed before becoming academies. Parents want their children to attend academies.

Of course, no anti-academy article would be complete without some choice use of exclusion data. The most recent DfE figures, published last month, comparing academies against a control group other schools with very similar pupils showed just 0.25 per cent difference in their exclusion rates - a quarter of one percent. 29 of the academies had no exclusions, compared to 32 of the comparison group. I struggle to see the scandal here. The National Audit Office and PWC both found no evidence that academy admissions and exclusions were having a negative impact on neighbouring schools; in fact the NAO said that academies were the schools most likely to be serving their local communities.

Last year researchers at the LSE found that academies improve faster than comparator schools even when controlling for pupil intake and the use of GCSE 'equivalent' qualifications. They also said that academies helped raise standards in local schools. Perhaps that's why, again contrary to Mehdi's claims, parents are queuing up to send their children to academies.

Jonathan Hill is the under-secretary of state for schools.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.