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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 12 · 18 June 2015

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Who runs our schools?

Toby Young plays a number of tiresome tricks with the data in his response to Jenny Turner and Dawn Foster (Letters, 21 May). He restates the official mantra that academies and free schools can’t be considered as privatised because these schools are legally required to be charities and that while some for-profits have set up charitable arms that own schools, these ‘parent companies can’t (and don’t) make money from their involvement in these schools.’ This is a naive reading of the flood of evidence now emerging about the relationship between public services and private companies in education.

The National Audit Office found that many of the early sponsored academies (set up under Labour) were under pressure to buy services from their sponsors, while more than half of these sponsors later reneged on their financial pledges to the schools. More recently, documents obtained under Freedom of Information requests revealed that state-funded academy chains have paid millions of pounds to closely associated businesses, directors, trustees and their relatives. As reported in the Guardian in 2014, Grace Academy, which runs three schools in the Midlands and was set up by the Tory donor Lord Edmiston, paid more than £1 million either directly or through companies owned or controlled by Edmiston, to members of the board of trustees and to trustees’ relatives. Leigh Academies Trust, run by the national schools commissioner, Frank Green, has paid £111,469 since 2010 to Shoreline, a private company founded by him, in consultancy fees. Aurora Academies Trust paid £213,015 to Mosaica Education for educational services, reimbursement of travel expenses and use of its Paragon curriculum resource; at least three Aurora directors have a direct or indirect interest in Mosaica Education. Such cosy – although not illegal – arrangements were heavily criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, whose chair, Margaret Hodge, described them as ‘just wrong’.

Free schools, Young claims, are ‘eight times more likely’ to be set up in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived. But the key question is not where the schools are located, but whom they are admitting. (After all, Westminster public school sits at the heart of one of the more deprived London boroughs, as does St Paul’s in Hammersmith.) The Centre for Learning and Life Chances has found that free schools in poor areas take fewer children eligible for free school meals than other schools in their area or nationally. At Canary Wharf College, a free school in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs, 4.4 per cent of pupils have been eligible for free school meals at some point in the last six years; according to figures from 2014, the average in Tower Hamlets as a whole is 69 per cent. The national primary school average is 26.8 per cent; the figure for Toby Young’s own West London Free School Primary in Hammersmith is 6.7 per cent. Young quotes the National Audit Office finding, from 2013, that 70 per cent of free schools are in areas forecasting a need for school places. But as the NAO points out, this was only in areas of ‘some’ projected need. Looking at areas forecasting ‘high’ or ‘severe’ need, the NAO found that only 19 per cent of secondary schools were being set up in such places. The NAO estimated that the government had spent £241 million on free schools in areas where no need was forecast at all.

The truth is that even if measurement is what you are after in education, academy conversion produces no magical improvements in results. Where academies and maintained schools start from the same base, maintained schools are marginally ahead on exam results. And, in a break from its often partisan use of data, a report earlier this year from the Department for Education revealed a worrying picture of underperformance by a significant number of academy chains. The coalition government poured billions into the dismantling and so-called reformation of our battered state education system, without producing any discernible overall improvement. Young says we have to understand that Michael Gove, and his supporters within Labour, such as Lord Adonis, are waging a crusade to improve the education of poor children. How then does he explain a recent LSE/University of Manchester assessment of the coalition’s record on schools, which found that while there has been a ‘striking policy shift towards a narrower education agenda’ over the past few years, in 2014 it was the lower-attaining students from poorer families who underwent the largest dip in achievement?

Melissa Benn; Janet Downs
London NW6; Bourne, Lincolnshire

Fast and Slow

With respect to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s homage to William Marshal, it isn’t only ‘cloven and carved wood’ that will give up their age to dendrochronology, but any timber, hewn, sawn or even unconverted from the log (LRB, 21 May). The core sampler is no respecter of shape, though at least one ring of sapwood is needed to know the year of felling.

As for 12th-century craftsmen using fast-grown wood (presumably oak) for the outer face of the gatehouse door of Chepstow Castle and slow-grown wood for the reinforcing inside, if this was a deliberate choice and not merely the result of what was to hand, then the joiners knew from experience that the fast-grown wood was denser than the slow-grown, fine-grained stuff, and sensibly placed it on the outside to protect the door against attack. All oak grows fairly quickly in the spring, when the tree puts on a porous layer of springwood. Fast-growing specimens put on more summerwood than slow-growing trees, and summerwood is the dense, hard part of each year’s growth ring. The result is that, within limits, fast-grown wood from a deciduous species is denser and thus structurally stronger than slow-grown wood of the same species. A carver would prefer the slow-grown wood.

Kenneth Rower
Newbury, Vermont

Schizophrenia without Symptoms

Mike Jay’s description of how, in Revolutionary France, psychiatry became part of the state apparatus, helps locate the origins of a continuing tradition of political psychiatry (LRB, 21 May). In 1971 I was able to smuggle into Moscow copies of the just published English-language translation of Zhores Medvedev and his historian brother Roy’s A Question of Madness, an account of the time spent by the biologist Zhores in the Kaluga psychiatric hospital in 1970. He had fallen foul of the authorities both for his publication of an account of the rise and fall of Stalin’s favourite geneticist, Trofim Lysenko, and for his excessively literal interpretation of the individual rights ostensibly guaranteed by the Soviet constitution. He was diagnosed as suffering from ‘schizophrenia without symptoms’, apparently because he was interested in two things simultaneously: biology and society (a diagnosis that would surely have fitted Esquirol’s patients as described by Jay). International pressure secured his release, but when we finally met up in a Moscow hotel, he told me that his friends had planned to provide him with a white coat and a key supposedly able to unlock every door in the hospital. The rigidity of Soviet bureaucracy would have ensured his escape.

Steven Rose
London WC1

After the Election

Ross McKibbin, like many other analysts, dwells on the injustice of the Tories’ winning an overall majority on just 36.9 per cent of the vote (LRB, 4 June). It is worth pointing out that the great triumphs of the Gaullist party in France between 1958 and 1973 were all won on around 37 per cent of the first-ballot vote. In practice that was always enough to ensure a clear victory on the second round. Surely this would have happened in Britain too in 2015, had it had the same system. The Tories would have got the lion’s share of the Ukip vote on a second ballot as well as smaller fractions of the Lib Dem, far right and independent candidates’ votes. Even if one allocates all the SNP vote to Labour on the second round plus large chunks of the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru, the party would have fallen well short. This suggests that the country currently has a real conservative majority, like it or not.

The big difference with the two-ballot system would be, of course, that the Tories would have had actively to woo Ukip and Labour the SNP and Greens to achieve such a result, thus strengthening the bargaining power of these smaller parties. But would those who dislike the actual result be happier with a system which would further strengthen the protest parties – Ukip, the SNP and Greens?

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Ross McKibbin writes that Labour could have done better in England. As an old Labor supporter from Australia, I have to agree, but when I reflect on what was only my second general election in Britain, Labour’s ineptitude doesn’t cease to confound. If Labour was looking for advice or help (and the Conservatives have made no bones about using the Liberal Party of Australia’s spin merchant) it might have looked to the ALP, which, given that Australia has six states and a national government, has proved reasonably robust at winning elections in the hundred-plus years of its history. No Australian (or conservative) leader would front a campaign without extensive media training. Sadly, Ed Miliband (whose opponent was an ex-commercial TV PR man) rarely looked at home in front of television cameras. No election would be complete without a scriptwriter giving the kind of one-liners destined to reach the front pages and head the evening news. And no election would exist without a large amount of press, radio and television advertising to get out the message. UK elections appear to exist in a secret vacuum in which the only reminders of their existence are posters stuck in suburban windows. Labour probably had a good chance of locking into public frustration: in London it scored easily because of concern about housing and house prices, but in the rest of England it should have scored with dissatisfaction over transport, urban infrastructure and welfare reform. McKibbin notes that the demographic for Ukip appears to be older voters unhappy with the ethnic mix of contemporary Britain (which echoes exactly John Howard’s Australian nemesis, Pauline Hansen and her One Nation Party): Labour could have upped the ante by getting out the message that immigration had increased – as indeed it had – under Cameron.

Tony Abbott’s government in Australia has peddled the notion that Labor destroyed the economy, when in fact Australia under Labor weathered the GFC pretty well. Given that Lynton Crosby was masterminding the Conservative campaign, it is not surprising that the same message was peddled for the Westminster elections. It is surprising that no one in Labour thought that this might become an election issue. Like all forms of sport, elections are great to win and sad things to lose.

Michael Rolfe
Brighton

David Runciman writes that the Labour Party should ‘become more like a typical European social democratic party’. Does he mean the German SPD? This has forged an alliance with the right-wing Christian Democrats for two terms now, even though the SPD has enough votes to form a majority government with parties on the left, such as the Greens and Die Link. Or perhaps Pasok in Greece? It threw in its lot with the right-wing New Democracy rather than defend the welfare state and the earning power of the working class and pensioners. We all know how that ended. There are others: Craxi’s Socialist Party, for example, now in government under a new leader, straining to appease financiers and corporate interests. To hope that shuffling the pack of possibilities with Labour will somehow solve the problems posed by its defeat seems a weak way forward. I would rather put my faith in working-class communities’ undiminished capacity for fighting back: Focus E15 families in Newham, Sweets Way residents in Barnet, care workers fighting wage reductions across the country, the Grangemouth strikers in Scotland, and many other small but important struggles. These political actions are the only base for rebuilding an effective social democratic party.

John Calderon
London E8

Two Pianos

When Satie’s friends visited his apartment on the day of his funeral they found not only the hats, suits, newspapers and walking sticks mentioned by Nick Richardson but also two grand pianos stacked on top of each other (LRB, 4 June).

Peter Babbitt
London SW14

A Man’s Mistake

Michael Wood, referring to Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation, writes: ‘If Simin had not wanted to leave, Nader would not have had to employ anyone to look after his father’ (LRB, 4 June). But Simin is depicted as a working mother: she would have had homecare in place for her father-in-law for years. Had the director been a woman, I don’t think they would have made that mistake.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

In Whole or in Part

I read with dismay what purported to be a review by Edward Luttwak of my book on the Armenian genocide (LRB, 4 June). Besides a single perfunctory sentence in which he makes positive mention of the book, the entire ‘review’ consisted of his ramblings on Turkish politics and the experiences of minorities, followed by his own opinion that the events of 1915 did not constitute a genocide because the Armenian mass killings and deportations ordered and facilitated by the Ottoman government differed from the Holocaust. My profound wish is that you would ask someone to write an actual review of the book, lay out, praise or criticise its arguments, so that your readers might actually learn something about the genocide and whether or not my book is worth their time.

Ronald Grigor Suny
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Article II of the Convention against Genocide defines it as ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’. That the Young Turks did not intend to destroy every last Armenian on earth does not free them from the charge of genocide: by any standard their conduct met the criterion ‘in part’. It is a widespread myth that the legal standard for genocide requires that the ambition of the killers be ‘total’. Most of the authors Edward Luttwak cites make this mistake, but it would be very strange if Lemkin had helped to draft a convention that did not fit the case that had inspired him to promote the international outlawing of genocide.

The one lawyerly argument available to the Turkish government is the one it wisely declines to use: that the Convention does not apply to cases before it came into force, and so would exclude enforcement against all actions between 1915 and 1951. Luttwak’s powerful demonstration of the continuous destruction of the Armenians into the present shows that such an argument would be of limited public relations use to the Turkish government.

Rather than spitting on the Convention, which certainly has its flaws, Luttwak should direct his contempt towards those governments that say ‘never again’ each time a genocide gets underway, as we saw most recently in response to the assaults by Isis against Yazidis, Christians, Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

Brendan O’Leary
University of Pennsylvania

Gallipoli

Bernard Porter has contracted an Australian deafness to the ‘nz’ in Anzac (LRB, 21 May). There was a sizeable, distinct New Zealand contingent in the Anzac corps at Gallipoli.

Colin James
Wellington, New Zealand

Not So Fast

David Trotter expresses admiration at the deft manner in which Hitchcock brought The 39 Steps to a speedy conclusion (LRB, 4 June). In the first instance, however, it wasn’t quite as speedy as all that. Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, in Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, set out the planned final exchanges between Hannay and Pamela in a taxicab after they’ve left the London Palladium; there’s even a photograph of the two of them beaming at each other in the back of the cab.

Peter Rowland
London E11

Watch Yourself

Andrew O’Hagan is told that his grandfather could ‘peel an orange through a keyhole’ (LRB, 4 June). Operating in the same Glasgow milieu as O’Hagan’s relatives, mine, though formally less criminal, made equally surreal use of the English language. ‘Watch yourself with that cunt,’ my father once counselled me, pointing out a particularly devious neighbour. ‘He could peel an orange in his pocket.’

Colin McArthur
London SE14

The Killing of Osama bin Laden

Regarding Seymour Hersh’s story, the facts are these (LRB, 21 May):

1. Osama bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.

2. The CIA found out where he was living.

3. US Navy Seals killed him.

End of story. Most Americans don’t give a flying f**k about the details of the venture.

Francis X. Archibald
Hilton Head, South Carolina

The editors write: At the most recent count, Seymour Hersh’s piece had received more than two million page-views online.

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