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The soap Oprah way to boost standards

Tom Innes reports on an education minister's visit to Chicago

Radical plans for a longer school day and extended academic year to help less able pupils are being considered by the Government after a visit to the US.

The ideas were discussed by politicians, teachers and educationists from Birmingham and Chicago at a conference on school reform last week.

The Birmingham delegates heard about some of the methods used to reform the school system in a city previously regarded as an education blackspot.

Estelle Morris, education junior minister and one of the delegates, said she was especially interested in extra tuition for pupils who needed it, a scheme outlined by Paul Vallas, chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools.

Mr Vallas said 175,000 of the 430,000 pupils in Chicago would take part in summer schools this year, lengthening their academic year from 180 to up to 230 days.

He added that there was also a scheme to provide after-hours care, plus an extra meal, for those children who needed it.

Ms Morris, MP for Birmingham's Yardley constituency, said: "The system of out-of-school learning is far more advanced. We have plans for a network of homework centres, but not yet to the same extent as in Chicago."

Ms Morris said her department was also looking at using a high-profile television show to highlight the national reading year initiative. The book club founded by Oprah Winfrey, the Chicago-based talk show host, has encouraged many thousands of American children and adults to read. "We have to recognise the influence of television," she said, citing moves to encourage UK soap operas to include story-lines about reading.

Other aspects of Chicago's tough reform policy are less likely to be adopted. These include the "reconstitution" of the worst-performing schools. Mr Vallas said seven schools had already been reconstituted, with staff obliged to reapply for their jobs and 29 per cent being replaced.

Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, said he felt existing measures in Britain were tough enough. He added that one advantage for his education authority was its separation from the Office for Standards in Education inspection process and its sanctions, whereas Chicago links the roles of inspector and employer.

There was a stark reminder of the violence in inner-city life in the US. When some of the Birmingham teachers met their Chicago counterparts, they were shocked to encounter one teacher who had attended the funerals of two murdered pupils in the same week.

Tim Brighouse, page 15

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