There is little evidence that high-profile education measures such as the national curriculum and opting out have raised standards, according to a new American report on the British school system.
Instead, the "politically motivated" changes have led to confusion, frustration and an erosion of democratic accountability, says the study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Entitled School Reform: Lessons from England, it tells American readers that "England serves as a warning bell".
Changes to schools have been bedevilled by a hasty introduction, ignoring the wishes of parents and teachers. American policy-makers should take note, according to the report's author, Kathryn Stearns, a senior policy analyst. "Schools can't be reformed according to political timetables," she says.
The report, however, commends local management of schools (introduced by the 1988 Education Act along with the national curriculum and opting out). LMS offers "the flexibility to tailor resources to particular needs," it says. "The result has been that more resources flow to the classroom. The record of LMS in England offers compelling evidence that devolution can spur substantial improvements."
The report says the national curriculum has sparked "an unprecedented interest" in teaching methods and an important debate.
But the Government, it says, has allowed the curriculum to become "primarily an instrument of politics, rather than education. The voices of classroom teachers, as well as those of students and parents were ignored. In too many committee rooms, a 'blame the teacher' attitude hampers reform."
The methods used to assess the curriculum are also criticised: "England embarked on a bold experiment for which its students, teachers, parents and politicians were unprepared." Teachers resented the administrative burden, and parents were confused.
While praising LMS, the report warns that grant-maintained status has gone too far and led to "an erosion of democratic accountability".
"Schools serve the public best when they collaborate within a regional system dedicated to a common purpose. America's schools, if they are to serve the public well, must remain accountable to institutions of government."
There are also, it argues, limits to parental choice. "The reality is somewhat different from the rhetoric. The schools market is not like other markets. Demand rarely matches supply. The result often leads to confusion, frustration and disappointment."
US Research Focus, page 13 School Reform: Lessons from England, $12 plus shipping from California Princeton Fulfilment Services, 1443 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, New Jersey 08618.