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We don’t need to wait for Superman here

Interesting blog here by Helen Flynn , describing an alternative model of system-wide school improvement being tried in America, one that is very different to the highly publicised charter school experiment, currently being given millions of dollars by the Obama administration and now the subject of a full length feature film ‘Waiting for Superman’. Any one who has seen the film will have noticed that, rather than offering system wide change, charter schools are clearly part of a policy that  works for the few rather than the many. The film ends with a sequence in which the featured children all wait in huge halls, like aircraft hangers, while school places are allocated in a lottery ( each child a numbered ball in a drum). One of the schools – the Harlem Success Academy – should have been re-named the Harlem Failure Academy since it clearly let down most applicants by refusing them a place in a very publicly humiliating display of failure.
I found the film fundamentally dishonest, picking on the very worst of public provision to highlight against the very best of charters, although barely mentioning that, as this academic study by Stanford University clearly shows, a significant proportion of Charter schools do worse than their public equivalents.Many have gone bust or been caught up in financial scandals and even the Harlem Children’s Zone , started by ‘Superman’ himself, Geoffrey Canada, has patchy results in spite of spending $16000 per pupil ( almost twice that spent on most public school students) and being much more than a collection of schools, rather a cradle to grave network of social services.
Nor does the film mention the very high attrition rates ( students dropping out or being dropped out) in charter schools and the self selection involved in their admissions.It was clear that the families applying for charter schools in the film were, while less well off, knowing and aspirant for their children and prepared to travel some distance every day to get their children into ‘better’ schools. British political philosophers Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift described this in a recent essay, about English and American school choice policies, as ‘dregs sifting’.
Overall I felt it provided few clues to what we should be doing over here. The American system is different in so many respects to ours, in particular when it comes to teachers pay, conditions and  capability; public accountability; the type of inspection regimes and the governance of schools. In a way the Americans are where we were 15 years ago before the real focus on school improvement started in this country. Even the best charter schools just reminded me of good local primary schools over here, many of which didn’t need to become ‘ free’ or privatised to offer high expectations of all pupils, longer days, extended services and work with families, although much of this will be cut now as local councils move swiftly to axe non statutory services. Too much time is spent casting around abroad for gimmicky ideas, as I pointed out in this earlier column for Education Guardian, when we could be celebrating what works at home, and building on that.

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  1. It’s also fascinating to note how the narrative of the film has influenced Tory Party education policy. The film’s basic storyline is: the US state school system has been broken by the unions and local authorities red-tape and it needs “superman” in the form of charter school headteachers and charter school champions to fix it. The Tories have tried to use a similar script to promote their free schools/academies agenda; only super-headteachers of academies can fix our broken system, only supermen in the form of ex-soldiers can sort out our unruly children, only super-parents setting up free schools can save our society. It’s a narrative that just hasn’t appealed to the vast majority of the British public, who haven’t shown the enthusiasm for free schools that parents in Sweden and some parts of the US have. There hasn’t been the grassroots uprising against “the Blob” — the name the film gives to the educational establishment — which the Tories anticipated. By and large, parents in the country are happy with state school provision. I’m certainly very happy with the teaching my son is getting at his local primary school; he’s got a fantastic teacher this year who has inspired him to love Shakespeare, science, maths and Spanish.

  2. Without wishing to be partisan, aren’t the Conservative policies of trying to fix “broken” schools largely a continuation of Labour’s (and I’m not saying either was/is necessarily right).

    In the county where I live there was a failing school which underwent 3 name changes under the Freshstart scheme, and 5 headteachers of whom many were meant to be Superheads (who then retired through ill health within 6 months), with large amounts of money pumped into the school through PFI. Labour subsequently changed the policy from Freshstart making such schools Academies on the basis that private sponsors might be sought out.

    What seemed to work best for the above school was when the head of a nearby more successful school was appointed to take over the running and the pupils of the struggling school were able to use the other school’s resources when necessary.

    Sadly, in the case of Comart school, the decision had already been made to shut it just as the pupils were beginning to make progress.

  3. I think you are right Nigel. Much in the White Paper is a continuation of the Labour’s school improvement programme, which in many areas, including my own, was successful.
    I wish we could continue to focus on that system wide approach, in particular encouraging more collaboration rather than individual school autonomy, rather than endlessly inventing more new types of school with ‘freedoms’ other schools don’t have.

  4. Edward Thring says:

    Ms Millar, the central subtext of everything you say and write is that all decisions over education policy (and everything else presumably) should be concentrated in the hands of a small elite of ‘experts’ and that all institutions should then conform to their prescriptions. Mussolini had the same idea. The question is: what happens when your precious elite is shown to be not only irredeemably corrupt, but also utterly incompetent and not at all expert (The EU Commission, FIFA, New Labour etc …)? Much better to let a thousand flowers bloom. That way there’s a greater chance that a few schools at least will get it right. Then we can all learn from those that succeed as well as those that fail.

  5. Charter Schools are not a Chemo-therapy for the Education System, they are neither a band-aid. No one, not the CEO’s, the teachers or parents, feel that charter schools should exist. However, the system has failed too many. There are too many students who can’t be turned around, and there are too many underrepresented children not being spoken for. Thus comes the necessity for alternatives in education. Charter Schools are a response to a failure in our Public Education systems. Instead of viewing them as a threat, view them as an experiment in Education. I work at an extremely high performing charter school, if every child had the education we provided their would never have been an achievement gap. Come to Spanish Harlem, check out the differences, and then tell me you don’t feel every child should have the same opportunity.

  6. Thanks very much for this Alex. It’s great to hear that you’ve been doing great work. However, the Stanford Credo report shows that nearly 40% of Charter schools provide a significantly worse education than mainstream schools. It appears that there is great variability in the system that doesn’t deliver equality of education. In response to Edward, I think privatisation will lead to much less plurality with a small coterie of private firms gaining monopolies on education.

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