Education Nov 9 2010

The truth about celebrity speakers, ‘dregs sifting’ and charter schools

Link to original article in Guardian Education

I have been in two minds over whether to write about Katharine Birbalsingh, the South London deputy head whose scathing attacks on state schools was lapped up at the Tory Party Conference. Over my several decades as a journalist I have seen several Katharine Birbalsinghs come and go. They emerge from nowhere; catch the media’s attention, often because of the way they look. Would she have made the same impact if she had been white and middle aged?

Around one per cent of what they say is true; the rest is usually eye catching propaganda that plays into the prejudices of the audience. In my experience these characters usually inhale too much of their own publicity, get over promoted and vanish as quickly as they appeared.

Birbalsingh is only one of the players Michael Gove has drafted in to bolster his flagging flagship policies.   Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, have also been recruited for more rhetoric about broken systems and intransigent teachers

But it is a high stakes strategy. Like Tony Blair before him, Gove is gambling that talking down our schools will build support for further, faster reform. He risks undermining parental confidence. The selective use of overseas educationalists as witnesses is particularly hazardous.

It is barely a year since the Swedes performed this role but they have been quietly dropped now. Why? Because too many other people popped up to testify that their  system was NOT working. Now the Swedes have introduced a new law that brings free schools under the same regulatory framework as local municipal schools. Don’t expect to hear much more about them in a hurry.

Similar doubts are now seeping out about the US charter schools. The CREDO study from Stanford University suggests that less than a fifth of charter schools outperform US public schools, most are about the same and two fifth are worse, often because they are incompetently run. Some are mired in financial scandals.

Even the relative successes, like KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone, are not quite as they seem. The HCZ isn’t just a collection of schools. It is a cradle to grave community effort, with privately donated assets of $200 million, which encompasses parenting courses, afterschool programmes, social and health services. Around $16,000 is spent on each student per year, money that couldn’t possibly be replicated here, and even then results are patchy.

And charters are rife with subtle selection. Not just ‘cream skimming’ the most affluent, but engaging in what political philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse described recently as ‘dregs sifting’ of the poorest. A combination of parent contracts, exclusion and self selection ensure that the most disadvantaged students remain outside the charters and in neighbouring public system, further distorting results.

But the most devastating critique of US school reforms comes from another former Education minister Diane Ravitch, an early charter devotee, who now writes books, articles and tours the US to warn against the dangers of faddish piecemeal reforms which aren’t ‘scalable’ and in favour of public education and high quality teaching  rather than privatization.

It is a shame she didn’t see the light earlier, but there is still time for us. Every day in this country hundreds of thousands of children  go to schools that are generally orderly and disciplined, they make progress and pass so many exams that we now can’t afford to send them all to university. The cogs that keep that system working are hard working teachers and heads who bear no resemblance to the caricatures in the repertoires any of Michael Gove’s celebrity guests.

There are schools, often in challenging urban areas, without the strong leadership required to make a difference and they need to be confronted. But they do not mean that an ‘excuses culture’ is rife,  that our system is an international disgrace or that we need to absorb wholesale policies that may be only partially successful in their home countries, however captivating or charismatic their advocates may be.

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