The Battle for the Soul of English Education

Last month 24 free schools opened in Britain. Those who oppose them should look at the success of their American counterparts

At an ordinary school, sitting and watching a Christmas production is not often an appealing prospect. As Sartre probably should have put it, Hell is other people’s children in nativity plays. But we weren’t sitting in an ordinary school. By the time a group of outrageously talented ten-year-olds from the Bronx in New York had rapped and joked their way through a production worthy of Broadway, nobody doubted their closing number’s assertion that “there ain’t no stopping us now”, or the journalist Jay Townsend’s view that this was one of “the most promising schools in America”. 

That school, KIPP Academy, is part of the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), a network of 109 charter schools (publicly-funded schools free from the local school district’s control) which has transformed education for students from poorer families across the United States. Charter schools have had a mixed record in some states, but KIPP’s remarkable schools, with 85 per cent of their pupils on free or subsidised meals, have proved, once and for all, that poorer pupils fail in education not because they have inferior talent, or even because they grow up in inferior socioeconomic environments, but because they attend inferior schools. Instead, however, of uniting the country behind the challenge of raising school standards for the poorest, the success of KIPP and other charter schools has ignited a ferocious battle for the soul of American education. 

At KIPP Academy, situated in one of America’s poorest school districts, 75 per cent of pupils achieve above the national average in maths and reading. This educational alchemy is repeated across America, as KIPP schools from Houston (where more than 97 per cent of eighth-graders passed their state reading and maths exams in 2009) to Colorado (where the Sunshine Academy in an impoverished neighbourhood is a state centre of excellence) achieve outstanding results in communities where schools had failed for generations. Only 41 per cent of pupils from the poorest quartile of families go to college in America, a fact which epitomises stagnant social mobility. Among KIPP pupils it is 85 per cent. 

At least at presidential level, the necessity of school reform is one of the few things Republicans and Democrats can agree on. George W. Bush made charters central to his “No child left behind” bill. Barack Obama introduced a “Race to the top” programme that explicitly linked state funding to removing the barriers to charter schools. KIPP has received the backing of high-profile figures, including the founders of The Gap, Doris and the late Don Fisher (who have given around $65 million over the last decade), and Bill and Melinda Gates, who pledged $10 million to the chain two years ago through the Gates Foundation that only funds projects which have demonstrated their effectiveness.

KIPP’s success has been achieved through a radically new approach to education. Old theories about the silver bullets of more money or smaller class sizes have been discarded in favour of a relentless focus on accountability and achievement. KIPP recruits elite teachers who work much longer days in a much longer school year (7.30am-5.30pm with a reduced summer holiday and regular Saturday school). In a symbol of their all-encompassing commitment, staff give pupils their mobile phone numbers in case they need any help with homework. 

Teachers are paid by performance (bonuses can be 10 per cent or more of salary), and action is taken rapidly if expected standards aren’t met. Principals walk the corridors, entering lessons unannounced and asking to see lesson plans with no notice (in England headteachers in state schools are banned by union agreements from observing their teachers for more than three hours a year). This is all supported by professional and leadership training at the high-quality KIPP Foundation. 

The strong demands KIPP places on teachers are matched by its very high expectations of pupils. In a country where a young black man is more likely to go to prison than to college, KIPP’s mainly black or Latino pupils are in year groups named after the year they will enter higher education, while teachers decorate their classrooms with banners from their own college days. Just in case pupils are in any doubt about expectations, motivational messages on classroom walls remind them. The most common reads: “THERE ARE NO EXCUSES.” 

Excuses are also running out for those who defend a status quo in which the college completion rate for low-income pupils is just a quarter of that achieved by KIPP students. For decades the message from the education establishment was that until socioeconomic disadvantages were removed children from poor families were destined to fail. This was aptly termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. KIPP, and other successful charters, have torpedoed this position with the hard facts of high attainment.  

As the black mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, has noted, we are presented with the perverse situation of organisations opposing schools because they have been successful in circumstances where others had failed. At the centre of this opposition are the immensely powerful teaching unions, who by negotiating teacher contracts running to hundreds of pages have successfully dominated school life. These contracts have made it nearly impossible to fire teachers. In an extreme example, a teacher who had been videoed putting a child’s head down a toilet was reinstated. With back-pay. As the teacher union leader Albert Shanker is said to have remarked, “When children start paying union dues, I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

This union power has been integral to creating a system based on a belief in ever-greater centralisation and teachers’ job security. Children are allocated places by the central school boards and the content of their education is dictated by negotiation between politicians and the unions, giving parents no choice and schools no incentive to innovate or improve. Teachers achieve tenure (permanent employment) after three years of service, and are then paid and promoted based on years of service. One state has actually made it illegal to use student performance as a factor in rewards. The abysmal results of this system are explained away by socioeconomic factors.

By challenging this ideology successful charter schools have run headlong into vituperative opposition from the education establishment, buttressed by the enormous power of the teaching unions. They are the largest political campaign contributors in the US and use their financial muscle to support sympathetic politicians or, more importantly, oppose candidates who challenge their ideology or threaten their domination. 

In May this year the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to file a lawsuit to stop the opening or expansion of 20 charter schools in New York. This lawsuit caused widespread confusion over what schools 7,000 children would attend after the summer break and provoked a march of 2,500 mostly black parents demanding people stop playing politics with the life chances of their children. Their response demonstrates the irrationality of the anti-reform position.

Staff at KIPP Academy described how unions had filed a grievance against the school without the solicitation or consent of the teachers, who were forced to issue a statement which pointed out that in their view this union’s action could “compromise the strong environment of communication and collaboration that is integral to the success of our schools”. 

A recent film, The Lottery, documented the difficulties faced by another successful charter school, Harlem Success Academy. The school, which has won widespread praise for its incredible performance in an area of long-term education failure, was blocked from moving into new premises by a union-backed lawsuit. At public hearings the school’s founder was subjected to remarkable levels of abuse from union-organised campaign groups and from elected politicians allied to them. She admits on film that she has even faced death threats, all because she wanted to expand a school which has been improving the life chances of local children. 

KIPP schools have been forced to respond to this opposition. KIPP Academy’s staff filed for the union to be decertified as their negotiating representative and staff at KIPP AMP Academy Brooklyn have also voted to cut union ties. Reform-minded politicians are beginning to heed the advice of the former New York schools chancellor, Joel Klein, and take on the education establishment. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey condemned their “political thuggery”. Washington DC’s former schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, last year successfully overhauled tenure laws, introduced merit pay and fired incompetent teachers. This robust response is, in Klein’s view, the only response since “collaboration is the elixir of the status quo crowd”. 

Last month, the first of 24 free schools opened in England. Like charters, they are state-funded but independent of local authority control and regulations, and are beginning to evoke the same kind of opposition from the education establishment. 

The government has already enabled existing schools or their replacements to convert to academies, giving them the same freedoms as free schools. So many have taken advantage of this that their opponents have had no time to mobilise. With more than 1,000 academies now established (including nearly 40 per cent of secondary schools), the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s goal of making academy status “the norm” will soon be a reality. 

The opponents of school reform, however, have turned their attention to what they correctly see is now the more important battleground, free schools. Academies tend to use their independence to make smaller or more gradual innovations (with exceptions like the Ark or Harris chains). As free schools become more numerous (50-100 may open next year and potentially more than 100 per year from 2013), their capacity for radical innovation poses a huge threat to the status quo. 

This opposition is led by the two main unions (the NUT and the NAS/UWT), the Anti Academies Alliance, and the recently formed Local Schools Network. The latter, headed by Fiona Millar, has condemned the free school movement and encouraged legal challenges against schools converting to academy status. Despite couching their arguments in the same language as those who nobly champion the many successful maintained comprehensives in England, they are in fact defending schools which have failed poor children for decades. Most worryingly, however, Nick Clegg has recently expressed scepticism regarding greater independence for free schools. This indicates that the Left of the Liberal Democrats (whom Clegg is under pressure to placate) might be willing to join the Left of the Labour Party in opposing education reform. 

That someone as intelligent and reform-minded as Nick Clegg should want to place further restrictions on free schools demonstrates the fragility of the progress made in English education over the last decade. Academy schools have achieved remarkable results (this year one of the first, Mossbourne Academy, which serves a downtrodden area of Hackney, sent nine pupils to Oxbridge). Free schools can build on this progress and enact a change more substantial, radical and lasting. It is this that poses such a threat to the vested interests which oppose them. 

As the Bronx nativity play drew to a close, one parent recounted, with a broad smile, how her older child has just started at an elite Ivy League college after attending KIPP Academy. She simply could not understand why anyone would oppose the school which had changed her child’s life. But many do, vehemently, and the same opposition is already mobilising to undermine free schools in England. Whether it is between unions and free school providers, or around the Cabinet table between ministers, the battle for the soul of English education has begun. 

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