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Pupils too busy to notice Bush's man

A Camden primary can add the US education secretary to its list of high-flying visitors. Biddy Passmore reports

What pleased the US education secretary most about his visit to Argyle primary in Camden was not meeting "a spectacular leader" (the head, Laura Wynne.) It was not teaching Shakespeare to 11-year-olds from ethnic backgrounds as diverse as Bangladesh, Somalia and Iraq.

It was not even the school's impressive, inter-generational scheme, where local retired people come in to learn with young pupils.

It was the fact that the children ignored him.

Rod Paige is an impressive figure. The first black - and the first former schools superintendent - to hold the top education post in the United States, he has a PhD in PE and stands tall. But, when he and his entourage entered the classrooms of the 425-pupil school, the children carried on with their work.

"We're used to having visitors," explains Ms Wynne. "We're a beacon school and we believe in sharing good practice." Schools minister David Miliband and chief inspector David Bell have been recent visitors. High-flyers from the City come in to help too.

"The children's attitude is: come what may, we're learning," says Ms Wynne.

Such ambition and concentration is what Dr Paige would like to see in more of in US elementary and high schools. Under the Bush administration's "No child left behind" legislation, passed in 2001, US schools are under strong pressure to improve fast. Aimed at helping low-achieving pupils in "high poverty" schools, the law demands that all states introduce standardised annual tests for seven to 12-year-olds - and publish the results. Parents at schools deemed to have made inadequate progress two years running can send their child to another local school (with transport costs paid by the district) or to demand free extra tuition.

Is Dr Paige concerned about the perils of over-testing and teaching to the test? A former dean of a college school of education ("I'm a research-based man"), he replies that he is not in favour of over-testing or inappropriate use of tests. But he thinks it "folly" not to provide feedback on pupils' progress.

He has little patience with the complaint that encouraging an exodus of pupils from under-performing schools could send such schools into a spiral of decline. His focus is on the parent and child, who should not be "chained" to an under-performing school.

"It takes a long time to improve a school but it only takes one year to damage a child's learning," he points out.

The US education secretary was visiting London last week to forge a new education partnership between England and the US. As well as visiting Argyle school, Dr Paige met Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary. More teacher and student exchanges and joint curriculum projects are planned, as well as more internet links between schools.

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