Big Apple has a sizeable problem

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Kenny Frederickis headteacher of George Green's community school in east London

I have just returned from an educational visit to New York.

The trip was organised by the Future Leaders Programme and I was one of the heads invited along (the job has some perks). The aim was for us to see schools that were making a difference in areas of severe deprivation.

Later, we visited a number of small charter schools set up in the poorest areas of the city.

Charter schools can be set up by anybody. All they need is a business plan and to have it agreed by the school district in order to receive funding.

They can decide their own curriculum and teaching methods as long as they hit theScholastic Aptitude Test (Sat) targets.

Three of the schools we visited were housed on one floor of a building that accommodated several schools. We found this a difficult concept to get our heads around. They had very few resources and limited technology. However, the main features of the schools were their size - they were small, about 200 students - and their emphasis on literacy and numeracy. This meant that the curriculum was narrow but focused on achievement. They ran an extended day and even insisted children attend Saturday school. But the key issue was that these schools believe every child can succeed - all they need to do is work hard.

The results these schools were getting were impressive. The enthusiasm and dedication of staff and pupils was obvious and these schools are now regarded as elite public or state schools. Entry to the schools is based on a lottery and hundreds of parents put their children forward for the small number of places available.

I was impressed by the work these schools were doing, but I could not help wondering what was being done to address the state of the public education system in New York. We were told these schools - serving disadvantaged communities - were in meltdown. We were told that teachers working in the suburbs received higher pay and that their schools received higher funding per child than those in the inner city.

Top-ups from several government programmes try to balance out the inequalities in the funding equation, without much success. The No Child Left Behind policy compounds the problem, by penalising schools that do not meet attainment targets. Government grants are reduced in such cases, forcing the schools to cut back even further on staff.

I took away many ideas and tips from our visit, but I also left with a sense of foreboding and a fear for the future of the disadvantaged youth of New York.

I will never complain about poor funding or inequalities in education in the UK again. We may not have it all right, but we are in a better position to make a difference than our colleagues in New York.

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