Melissa Benn

Posts Tagged ‘charter schools.

Below, my latest piece in Guardian education…..

Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.

No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.

Read on

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

The media has been obsessed this week with what position Stephen Twigg, the new secretary of state for education, will take on free schools. While Twigg was probably unwise to give interviews on such a controversial policy within days of being appointed to the post, his latest, more considered, view on the matter seems largely sensible.

I would take issue with his sweeping claim that ‘parents know that the real difference to their child getting ahead is not what is painted on the sign outside the school, but what happens inside the classroom.’. Obviously, the issues of selection/admissions and funding are crucial to the success of a school and its pupils. But it was ever thus……

Meanwhile, in a fascinating exchange on the Local Schools Network concerning the example of the charter school/free school experiment in America, leading free school supporter and founder Toby Young, who had enjoyed taunting Twigg this week, came clean on the policy’s true objective: to allow schools to fail. It is only by letting schools open and close, Young claims, that we can truly learn what kind of innovation works.

Well, I can save Toby years of market based experimentation, with all the disappointment and failure it will bring to generations of students. We already know what makes schools successful. While the majority of the US’s charter schools do not improve on public (state) schools performance, those that do have millions of philanthropically sourced extra money poured into them. Fine, perhaps, if you are living and learning in the Harlem Children’s Zone where cradle to college investment is so impressive; too bad if you are at one of the rogue US charter schools where you will mainly learn about the perils of an unregulated, market based approach.

There’s nothing new in all this. Keith Joseph was singing the praises of bankruptcy in relation to the public services decades ago. For him too, human capital takes low priority in such a schema.

Still, we should be grateful to Toby for so baldly setting out the fundamental objectives of current education policy. The Coalition does not dare.


Welcome to my website. I am a writer, novelist and campaigner. Follow the link below to my latest book. Join the conversation on Twitter. Or comment on this blog......

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