The Sunday Times today profiles Peter Hyman and his experiences in schools both here and in New York which have shaped the reasons behind his application to run a Free School in Newham.
Unlike Toby Young and Katherine Birbalsingh, he does not court controversy, does not attack maintained schools to promote his Free School ideologies and has a genuine, perhaps even a Messianic commitment, to improve education for the disadvantaged. A former political adviser, he admirably avoids politicising the Free School debate and makes a coherent and reasonable case for them.
In that sense, he is a much more palatable face for the Free School campaign and a relief from the confusing histrionics of Birbalsingh and tiresome aggression of Young. But not even his eloquence can persuade us that the basic ideology of aiming for the best education for all is not in any way different to what LA maintained and VA schools also set out to do. And even he falls into the trap of spinning grandiose claims – “They will have smart uniforms and get good exam grades and a place in a top university”. Maintained schools do not set out to fail their children and many have not.
How can he possibly know all this when he does not yet have a school, does not have a student intake and can therefore have no idea of the challenges (cultural, social, linguistic etc.) facing him? The only way he could possibly make these absolute assertions is if he already knows he will drawing from a pool of children, each one easy to teach because they come from stable, achieving, supportive families living some way above the poverty line. The only way this is guaranteed is surely by some form of covert or overt selection?
Hyman certainly worked in a challenging school in his first job. Islington Green was notorious for its failings but many of us in Islington could not help but think that if the school had a better mix of students and the wealthier locals did not opt for selective state or private schools, then Islington Green would not have become what was a “sink school.” Highbury Grove up the road had very similar challenges but has managed, through great governance, leadership and a re-build, to become “outstanding”. Truda White, the Head, managed to do this without becoming an Academy or abandoning the school to start afresh with a Free School. Her school is now a beacon of the community, oversubscribed and welcoming back the middle classes who had left it. But the media don’t want to publicise this, Highbury Grove isn’t the only LA maintained school that is excellent and the DfE website does not list such schools as existing.
Hyman also talks of being inspired visiting a Charter School in Harlem, New York City but New York is a very wealthy state with pockets of deprivation struggling in a landscape of otherwise great wealth and privilege, not least in New York City itself. Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) gets good results but not amazing results, according to leading Education Historian Diane Ravitch. On the last state tests, 40 percent of the kids were proficient. It’s other advantage is that it is a model with amazing resources and ones not just confined to paying for teaching – it also takes care of medical issues, social problems and family problems. Geoffrey Canada’s assets of $200 million means that resources DO matter and proves that the ability to be able to address poverty matters. Our government is not addressing these with any due diligence whatsoever.
Hyman would have come back with a more realistic assessment of Charters
had he visited one in Tennessee, or Ohio or perhaps Mississippi, where Charters have done nothing to improve standards and, in some cases, have made things worse, leading to litigation against the profit making organizations that run them.
They haven’t provided the magic bullet of tackling educational standards in poor rural states, especially amongst the black and hispanic communities. Unlike HCZ, philanthropy does not come knocking at these schools with bags of Wall Street or Bill Gates cash – deprived schools getting ripped off by the companies managing them are not sexy enough for the philanthropists, the celebs and the socialites.
In fact, what HCZ proves is that resources do matter because I suspect that if any all schools could have a classroom with 15 children with two teachers, they could get better results. Free School websites are keen to pronounce that they will have smaller classrooms. How will they though? Have they been promised this as part of their Funding Agreements? And if so - why haven’t governments, including the present one, extended this provision to all state schools – maintained schools, especially the more challenged ones have been crying out for this for years?
The Sunday Times repeats the “dire statistics” of illiteracy in primary schools and unacceptable GCSE grades but neither the paper nor Hyman (nor the government) have produced any evidence that Free Schools or Academies will drive up results. Gove has gone as far as to say he will basically use tables to punish schools and teachers and close schools, enforcing thereby Academy status, which satisfies government statistics (so many thousand Academy conversions! 281 Free School applications to be announced TOMORROW! Vive la Revolution!).
I wrote here about what looks like Sam Freedman’s promotion of US Edu Reformers – including one Joel Klein, whose success in re-shaping New York schools via Charter-isation has been controversial and disputed and is a model for Gove’s policy over here. Klein left his job abruptly as Chancellor of New York City Schools and is now CEO of the Educational Division At Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the Sunday Times. Is this article just simple synchronicity or will the commercial interests of News Corp extend into British state funded schools?