It is amazing how quickly you can discourage a nation. Just 18 months ago, Michael Gove kicked off his controversial tenure at the Department for Education with apparently definitive claims, backed by international test evidence, of UK state school failure and the need for a radical new approach.
Last year, Sweden was the model for reform. The government barely mentions Sweden these days, not since it emerged that its free schools produce marginally improved results, but increased social segregation. Now the emphasis has shifted to America, another mediocre international performer, yet already proving a dangerous template for aggressive fast-paced reform over here.
Most people have heard of the American charter schools, which currently educate over one and a half million children, but few understand the conditions under which their highly partial success occurs or what their impact is. Nor do they grasp what their equivalents here in England — academies and free schools — could mean for our education system in the long term.
The model goes something like this: a set of new schools, apparently dedicated to radically improved education of the poor, is set up in competition to existing public provision. Heavily backed by corporate or philanthropic interests, with some working on a “for profit” basis, they are reliant on high-stakes results, strict discipline, a punitive approach to teachers and unions, and tend to have more control over their admissions, higher rates of exclusion, and to take fewer students with special needs or those for whom English is not their first language.
Meanwhile, public (state) schools, many suffering toxic spending cuts, drowning in often unjustified public and political criticism, must continue to educate anyone who comes through their gates, making the alternative new model look shinier still. Yet many still provide an outstanding education, particularly in deprived areas. Sound familiar?
One of the most high-profile critics of charter schools is Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of state for education under George W Bush, who is now fighting against the role of choice, high-stakes testing and the dominance of massive corporations in US education, all of which, she believes, are damaging to the concept of universal quality public education.
It was interesting to watch the softly spoken Ravitch in debate recently with Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic chief executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the most high-profile charter network, eulogised in the 2010 pro-charter documentary Waiting For Superman.
HCZ offers a stern, test-driven education to a select few. As Canada admitted, part of HCZ’s success lies in turfing out those students who don’t make the grade. Its impressive cradle-to-college social support system, underwritten by billions of dollars of private funding, is not replicable on a national scale.
Other charter networks are much less successful. According to the authoritative 2009 Stanford Credo study, 17% outperform public schools, 46% show no difference and 37% get lower results.
There are worrying parallels with the way things are developing here. We are seeing the rapid growth of private interests in education, with some of the more effective chains granted significant influence in national educational debate. Here, too, we are presented with “miracle academies” but a range of unanswered questions about admissions, exclusions, sources of additional funding and pedagogy.
Here, too, our system is being torn up at its foundations, yet there is only a mixed picture of improvement. According to the latest Ofsted report, the proportion of academies judged good or outstanding is similar to that for all secondary schools.
Yet Gove’s “quiet revolution” continues unabated. Under the new Education Act, only academies and free schools can now be set up. No new community schools. Many maintained schools continue to be under intense pressure to become academies. Some governors report being asked to special briefings on the achievements of the US charter school model, followed up by invitations to join one of the new educational chains.
Longer term, these developments risk pitting school against school, easing the way for for-profit providers into a key public service, alienating many teachers and undermining across-the-board educational progress. Surely we have learned by now not to blindly follow the US into unproven and expensive policy disasters?
This column was first published in The Guardian