More Than ABCs in NYC

The opening of our free school, Michaela Community School, has been postponed to 2013. I suspect we won’t be the only ones this year. While 79 free schools were approved to open in September 2012, I predict that not more than 30 or 40 will actually do so.

Buildings are what free schools need first of all. So after our early setbacks in Lambeth and Wandsworth we are now scouring inner London for a site big enough to accommodate a secondary school, in a borough that will accept the idea of a free school, in an area that has a deprived intake. The search is challenging and it is far from certain that we will open in 2013.

Yet there is a silver lining to the disappointment. When the Guardian published the news that we were postponing, the rejoicing that I expected was muffled. As one left-winger put it on Twitter: “All it means is that a good school isn’t going to open.” I was also impressed by those who simply stayed silent, suggesting that they too could see that the failure of our school to open was not cause for jubilation.

Another article in the Guardian, by Peter Wilby, even managed to recognise the sense in our knowledge curriculum. My modest insistence that inner-city children should read at least one Shakespeare play (from beginning to end) during secondary school — at private school, pupils read one a year — was not mocked or derided. Wilby understood what I have been saying for so long: inner-city children can achieve and learn as much as any child at private school. While their backgrounds may present challenges, this doesn’t mean that we should abandon all hope of introducing them to worlds they never knew existed, and instead spend six weeks of English lessons studying The Simpsons because it is judged to be “engaging” for them. 

I have just visited two schools in New York where they teach a core knowledge curriculum, underpinned by the pedagogy of Ed Hirsch. It aims to provide all children with the knowledge they need to be included in a national literate culture, whatever their background. Both schools are in areas where only the poorest live. Buildings are protected with bars, all doors are locked and a policeman guards the entrance. One of them, in Brooklyn, was surrounded by social housing estates or “projects”, and the streets were dotted with unemployed youths. In London, we’ll often point out that some 30 per cent of pupils are on free school meals to demonstrate how disadvantaged its intake is. In these New York schools, 100 per cent of the children are entitled not only to a free lunch, but breakfast too.

But inside these schools was laughter, and high-quality work displayed on every wall. Pupils are aged four to 13 and the quality of their written work far outstripped much that I have seen in British secondary schools. I sat in a Grade 1 class with six-year-olds, all various shades of brown and black. They sat on the carpet with their teacher, discussing George Washington, later writing about his achievements. I passed a wall of essays by seven-year-olds on Shakespeare. The principal also showed me their abridged versions of various Shakespeare plays. Some of the poorest children in New York are discussing Orsino and Viola in Twelfth Night at four years old.

The principal has made the core knowledge curriculum a priority for the past decade. “The teachers and others didn’t believe it was possible when we first started,” she says. “Even some parents insisted their kids couldn’t do it.” To convince the parents, she would invite them in for a day and let them follow their children around, so that they could see just how clever they could be. “People think that all these kids can read is about Dr Seuss. It isn’t true.”

This is a far cry from what some in Britain are campaigning for. Shakespeare, they say, is irrelevant in the 21st century where technology rules. So what if our 16-year-olds write GCSE English essays (that pass) explaining how Romeo and Juliet met across a fish tank, and that Tybalt and Mercutio carry guns? Once, when trying to explain to an old family friend just how bad the situation in our schools is, I pointed out how so much history and literature simply isn’t taught at all. His response? “When I send my children to school, I simply don’t expect them to learn about 1066 and all that.” I was stunned.

That is a fundamental difference between attitudes in Britain and America. Whatever the school, whatever its intake, few Americans would ever question teaching children about Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. But here, somehow, teaching British history or great British writers is almost seen as morally wrong. The principal says goodbye: “I look forward to visiting your school next year and seeing similar things.” I nod. “Yes,” I say, “we’ll open. We just have to.”

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