Academies and Free Schools

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

At schools across England, there is a rising tide of anger and concern among parents and teachers. Amid accusations of government bullying, as a result of the 2010 Academies Act, hundreds of schools are being transformed into independent academies that operate outside the control of local authorities. The government says the change, a historic shift away from the comprehensive education system, is for the better. But critics argue it is more about creeping privatisation than improving standards.

Chorlton High School in Greater Manchester is one of many where there is active resistance to the process. Unlike some low ranking schools, which are being forced to become an academy by the Department for Education (DfE), the governors at high achieving Chorlton want to voluntarily convert. They believe that because of the current financial climate, becoming an academy would “best protect the nature and ethos” of the school.

However, parents and community activists have formed a campaign group to oppose the move, which they argue would leave the school unaccountable to local people and could open it up to for-profit providers in the future.

“We’ve got a very good school, why change it for the Tories?” says 55-year-old Mark Krantz, a former teacher whose son studied at Chorlton High. “Without having a ballot of the community which the school serves, they don’t have the right to give our school away and turn it into an academy forever. The school’s been there for over 50 years; how can it be right that a small group of governors decide that they believe this is what should happen?”

As part of its “education revolution”, the coalition wants all schools to have the chance to become academies. Of the 3127 maintained secondary schools in England, as of 1 February, around half – 1580 – had converted to academy status.

Receiving funding directly from central government and not local authorities like comprehensive schools, academies have greater freedom and control over their finances and do not have to follow the national curriculum. Some can be sponsored by charities or businesses, which can choose the headmaster of the school and have a say over what is taught.

Controversial so-called “free schools” can also be set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts or religious groups, which then become academies and receive central government funding. 24 free schools opened in 2011 and a further 72 are planned to open in September 2012 and beyond.

One, the Phoenix Free School, is set to be established in Oldham next year. Run entirely by ex-military servicemen and women, it will attempt to instil “martial values" in children, using a mix of unqualified and qualified teachers who the school’s ex-army cofounder says will be told to discard “every liberal idea taught in teacher-training courses.”

“Putting troops onto our streets may control the symptoms of social breakdown. But putting troops into our schools would do far more to address the underlying problems,” says Tim Knox, director of right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, which is backing the Phoenix school. “In particular, ex-servicemen and women can provide the role models and sense of discipline that is so often lacking in inner city schools.”

But teachers groups are staunchly against the introduction of free schools and academies, questioning the merit of allowing untrained educators and companies with vested interests to exert influence over children.

For a young person to develop fully, they need to have a really broad rounded curriculum – not something that’s narrow and aimed at one particular job or industry, which is what we’re seeing,” says Avis Gilmore, north west secretary of the National Union of Teachers. “We are opposed to the whole process because we see it is dismantling the state education system.”

There is widespread anxiety that the Academies Act is leading to what is in effect privatisation. Although the coalition has given assurances that it will not open up schools to for-profit companies, it refuses to rule out doing so in the future. Already, firms such as Barclays Bank have sponsored schools – raising questions about what they as businesses stand to benefit.

“It’s anything but privatisation through the back door – they’re parking the tanks on the lawn,” says Alasdair Smith, spokesman for the Anti-Academies Alliance. “They’re blowing local authorities away so lots of schools feel that they have no choice but to become self governing academies or to join chains.

“It’s exactly the same as what’s being done to the NHS. There’s no mandate for this. What you’re seeing are corporate raiders lining up to take over our schools – that’s the bottom line. If you want to improve schools you’ve got to focus on the quality of teaching and learning. It’s not about changing structures and governance.”

The rapid boom in school conversions has proved costly for some councils. In Yorkshire, at least 16 schools tied to private finance initiative deals are applying or have become academies, according to the Yorkshire Post. This could mean the region’s councils are forced to pay millions for schools they no longer run or own.

Last month, governors of Coleraine Park Primary in Tottenham, north London, became the latest in a line of schools forced to become an academy by the DfE following a poor Ofsted report. Coleraine was made to accept sponsorship by the Harris Federation, a charity chaired by Tory peer Lord Harris, which runs a chain of academy schools. The charity is not-for-profit, though notably one of its directors was paid over £240,000 in 2010.

“Coleraine’s governors feel that the Secretary of State has disempowered them without due regard for their role and has in fact bullied them into a decision in a way that nobody wants,” the governors wrote in a disgruntled statement. “We believe that handing it over to the Harris Federation will not necessarily improve standards more than they would have done on the current trajectory.”

Downhills Primary, also in Tottenham, is faced with a similar predicament. Because it has been placed in special measures by schools inspectorate Ofsted, which means it is underperforming, the DfE is able to compel it to become an academy under the powers granted by the Academies Act. The school’s head, Leslie Church, recently resigned after coming into conflict with education secretary Michael Gove – but parents are vowing to fight the conversion in his absence.

“At our school the children are happy, the children are learning and I don’t have concerns,” says Wendy Sugarman, 44, whose eight-year-old son attends Downhills. “There is some really good teaching going on. The Ofsted report was very, very harsh.

“I just think that the whole thing stinks. When you look into the academy chains, it’s all about money. As parents we chose to send our children to the school because it had certain qualities, and I worry that the ethos of the school will be destroyed by an academy chain. I feel that they have no grounding or experience working with Haringey, our borough.”

Fears about the degree to which academy status can improve schools were confounded in February after Birkdale High School in Southport was deemed “inadequate with special measures”, the lowest ranking, four months into its academy status.

“Progress is inadequate and students do not achieve as well as they should,” Ofsted wrote in its report. “The failure of senior leaders to improve teaching quality and tackle inappropriate behaviour has contributed to a far less favourable picture of provision and outcomes than at the time of the previous inspection.”

The Sabu Revelation

Saturday, 17 March 2012

To most observers he seemed unpredictable, dangerous and so highly skilled that he could evade the long arm of the law. But in an astonishing revelation, last week it emerged that Sabu, the notorious figurehead of hacking group LulzSec, had for almost nine months been working secretly as an informant for the FBI.

The identity of 28-year-old Hector Xavier Monsegur, who led a rampage against government websites and multi-national corporations, had been uncovered when he failed to mask his computer's IP address using an internet chat room on just one fateful occasion.

Soon after, FBI agents appeared at the door of his apartment on the sixth floor of a 14-story housing project in Manhattan. The agents reportedly played "good cop bad cop", convincing the infamous hacker - almost immediately, according to court documents - that his only way out was to cooperate with an international investigation into his former comrades.

Monsegur, under his Sabu guise, proceeded to continue operating aggressively online - in some cases encouraging fellow hackers to commit crimes - all while under apparent instruction of the FBI.

Some suspected he had been "turned" - but the hacker world is rife with conspiracy theories and there was no hard evidence to prove it. "Sabu was identified, apprehended by the FBI and turned to an informant," one perceptive group wrote in November last year. Yet the claim never gained substantial traction.

From the perspective of the authorities, it was a tactical masterstroke. They had managed to flip the most notorious, the most feared, and the most accomplished of the LulzSec members. Due to his close ties and wide respect among hacker collective Anonymous and other splinter groups such as AntiSec, Sabu was a goldmine to the FBI. With his help, they were able to level charges against five accused hackers based in Britain, Ireland and America.

There are concerns, however, about how far the Bureau went to pursue its goals.

On 19 June, just 12 days after Sabu had been arrested, LulzSec, the group he commanded, issued a public call to arms. "Top priority is to steal and leak any classified government information, including email spools and documentation," it wrote in a manifesto.

Sabu was quick to proudly point out the manifesto to his 30,000 Twitter followers. "The biggest, unified operation amongst hackers in history," he wrote, possibly from an FBI computer. "All factions welcome. We are one."

Two months later, on 17 August, Sabu disappeared offline for 30 days. We now know that just two days prior, on 15 August, he had secretly pleaded guilty to twelve counts of hacking in a closed hearing at Southern District court, between Manhattan Bridge and Broadway, New York. When he returned, though he reportedly helped call off some attacks, he maintained a hostile front, claiming, "I wasn't owned, arrested, hacked or any of the other rumors [sic]."

In December, he encouraged an offensive against companies manufacturing surveillance technology; he called on hackers to target "with impunity" anyone supporting legislation that would restrict internet freedoms; and played what sources close to him say was a central role in hacking intelligence and security thinktank Stratfor. The attack on Stratfor resulted in 75,000 credit card numbers being posted online, with 5.5m of the thinktank's confidential emails subsequently passed to WikiLeaks.

This trend continued almost right up until 6 March, the day he was "outed" in an exclusive published by Fox News. As recently as two weeks ago Sabu had publicly instructed hackers to "infiltrate" international crime organisation Interpol and to "expose" arms companies. "Hack their servers," he tweeted on 28 February. "Scour their user email/passes. Grab mailspoolz. Grab docs... Leak. Rinse. Repeat."

Sabu's activities while working out of FBI offices, and then later his home under 24-hour surveillance, raise significant legal and ethical questions. Most notably: by encouraging people to commit crimes in such a brazen fashion, did he cross the thin line from informant to agent provocateur?

It has been suggested that the attack on Stratfor and the subsequent dealing with WikiLeaks was allowed - perhaps encouraged - by the FBI, not only to strengthen the US government's case against the hackers, but also to assist in the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (This does not seem beyond the realms of possibility, particularly given America's well-documented desire to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing US government secrets.)

It could have been the case, of course, that Sabu on occasion went "rogue" while under FBI direction. But given that he was the most notorious hacker in the world and having his every move monitored, it is doubtful the authorities would have let him out of their sight long enough for him to have the opportunity - repeatedly and over a period of several months - to incite others to commit criminal acts. What appears more likely is that the FBI decided, like the hackers, they too could play dirty.

These are issues that will no doubt be addressed In the months ahead, as the FBI's tactics fall under scrutiny in the courts and elsewhere. The impact of the Sabu revelation, meantime, has unsurprisingly reverberated like an atomic bomb within the Anonymous community.

"I feel for the ones who worked with him and who trusted him with leaks/data," one hacker told New Statesman. "They could never have known."

This sentiment is one shared across online chat rooms frequented by Anonymous, where there are varying degrees of anger, paranoia, fear and sadness.

For many, the large void left by Sabu will provide a defining moment of sobering reality. His silent Twitter page, once a ceaseless stream of anti-establishment rage, is now nothing but a ghostly relic - a symbolic reminder that in the shadowy virtual world hackers inhabit, no one is untouchable, and everyone, no matter who they profess to be, is potentially an informant.

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