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Posted at 2:00 AM ET, 05/ 6/2010

How U.S. school reform is linked to UK vote

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sarah Ebner, editor of School Gate, a blog on the website of The Times of London ( which, it says, helps readers through the maze of Britain’s education system). Today the United Kingdom is having a general election in which education -- and U.S.-style school reform -- is an issue. In fact, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools in the United States have been invoked in the election. Read on.

By Sarah Ebner
What is your impression of education in the United Kingdom? If your opinion is high, I’m guessing it’s because some of our schools (Eton, Rugby) and universities (Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics) are world-famous.

This is actually a major problem for British education. The top performing schools are mainly private, which means you pay to go there. These are the ones which produce most of our prime ministers, boast the top grades and get a disproportionate number of pupils into the best universities. The predicament? They educate just 7 percent of children.

In other words, most British children are state-educated, in schools which are state-funded and which follow a national curriculum.

How to improve this system is a huge issue, and ever since our ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair (who went to a fee-paying school, Fettes, and then Oxford) proclaimed that his priority would be "education, education, education", it has become an increasingly hot political topic too.

Investment in education has more than doubled from 1995-96 to 2008. But questions still rumble about whether this has been enough or if it has been used wisely. Now, amid the worst recession in recent history, the money is no longer there. So, what should be done?

As you may know, we have an election today in the United Kingdom. The political landscape is uncertain -- we have an unpopular government, an opposition which is finding it hard to take advantage, and a resurgent third party -- but education remains vitally important.

Interestingly, two of the most important politicians in the main parties are responsible for the education portfolios.

Ed Balls, the current education secretary, is the prime minister’s right hand man, while Michael Gove, the opposition Conservative education spokesman, is one of the most important members of the aspiring prime minister, David Cameron’s inner circle.

The issues may sound familiar. There are lots of worries about how to raise children’s scores in the standardized tests, how to improve literacy, whether to demand that aspiring teachers have higher qualifications and whether smaller class sizes are the answer.

But one of the most interesting -- and new -- policies belongs to the Conservatives, and it has looked abroad, to Sweden and to you, in America, to find it.

The policy is to allow parents, teachers, or other interested organizations to set up and run their own schools.

It’s come about because of the huge demand for the best state schools -- every year thousands of children fail to get into their "first choice" of local establishment and they, and their disappointed parents, garner many newspaper headlines. The solution, it’s argued, is to "create a new generation of independently run state schools."

This idea is taken largely from Sweden, where parents’ groups, charities and companies have recently been allowed to set up and run their own "free" schools.

The Conservatives champion these schools as a way of raising standards (they claim that they "will give every child the kind of education that is currently available only to the well-off") although there is contradictory evidence about how much standards have actually improved.

And, perhaps more importantly, there are also suggestions that although these new Swedish schools are very popular, they have increased social segregation (the on-the-ball middle class parents are sending their children to the new schools, leaving the older schools to immigrants and those less savvy).

However, the Conservatives refute any claims that their policy will only benefit children with "pushy parents," and that poorer children will lose out. And they do this by pointing to your own charter schools.

In fact, Gove seems in awe of these, and recently told the Guardian, "I am inspired and amazed by the achievements of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the American charter school chain publicly supported by President Obama."

The KIPP schools have become a kind of holy grail over here, even though there aren’t many of them. But are they the answer to improving state education in the UK? If the Conservatives win the election today, we may just find out.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 6, 2010; 2:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  British election, British schools, Gordon brown, Gove and KIPP, KIPP, KIPP schools, Knowledge Is Power, UK election, charter schools, education in britain, obama and KIPP, schools in England  
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I wonder if it's wise to always look overseas for innovations. Surely each country is very different.
Interesting article. The English election sounds too close to call.

Posted by: artbraun | May 6, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

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