An Atlantic crossing for UK inspectors

13th March 1998 at 00:00
The John F Kennedy elementary is a bit further afield than the schools usually inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. In fact, it's in Boston, Massachusetts.

But it became the first school outside the United Kingdom to undergo such a review, as part of an embryonic international co-operation programme designed to benefit each country's educational reform process.

"It was an experiment. It wasn't a high-stakes event," said Christine Agambar, head of research and analysis for OFSTED. "We're not here as missionaries. They gave as much to us as we did to them."

The three-person inspection team made its three-day visit at the invitation of education officials pushing for periodic British-style external reviews of US schools, now generally accountable only to local school boards that intervene when problems come to their attention.

Some American educators want regular inspections on the British model. In Boston, school officials have approved an "accountability plan", although it will use outside teams of educators rather than professional inspectors to review schools.

"A system that doesn't evaluate its schools externally has got some questions to answer," said one of the British inspectors, Michael Stark, head of the effectiveness division at the Department for Education and Employment. "It doesn't have to be our model. It can be an indigenous model."

US federal education officials also have made enquiries about a long-term exchange of experts with Britain, according to Pamela Barrett, education attache at the British Embassy in Washington.

"The UK and the US are brushing up against some of the same kind of issues," Ms Barrett said.

As in Britain, the US is implementing national standards, national tests and, in some states, school choice.

"I think there are some fascinating things we can learn from each other," said Thomas Payzant, Boston's superintendent of schools.

For their part, members of the British team praised two aspects of the inner-city school they studied that are generally considered drawbacks in America: a growing population of students who speak languages other than English and the fierce decentralisation of the US education system.

In fact, local control allows schools "to do something that is different from elsewhere so you can pilot different things at different times," Mr Stark said.

Many students at the Boston elementary school speak Spanish as their native language, said Ms Agambar, and "if you can tap that, it's a tremendous resource, not a liability" for turning out bilingual students.

"If we're going to compete globally, we'll have to match what's being done in other educational systems," Ms Agambar said.

International pages 29, 30

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