Born in the USA...

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Michael Shaw on the fruitful transatlantic exchange of educational ideas

The history of pop music is filled with tales of British bands such as The Beatles who copied ideas from America, developed them, then brought them back to the US to the screams of delighted fans.

This bouncing of ideas across the Atlantic has also become increasingly evident in education. As with music, the sheer size of America means far more ideas travelled from the US to the UK than vice versa.

But American academics are now becoming enthusiastic about developments in schools in Britain, which consistently outperforms the US on many educational measures.

Ideas they are keen to copy include giving heads more control of school budgets, a rigorous inspection system and personalised (or, as they call it, "personalized") learning .

Professor Paul Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Washington University, will publish a paper next month praising New Labour's initiatives. "Potential US 'education presidents' and 'education governors', especially Democrats, have a lot to learn from Blair," he writes.

Equally, British schools have long taken an interest in their US counterparts. America's influence ranges from the current fad in some UK schools of holding graduation ceremonies and "proms" to broader national trends.

England's switch from grammar schools to comprehensives is believed to have been largely inspired by America's all-ability high schools, particularly a 1959 book on their successes by James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard university.

The interest in American education continued under the Conservative government in the 1980s, when the then education secretary Kenneth Baker, paid a high-profile visit to America.

It has been New Labour, however, that seems to have gained most inspiration from the States.

David Bell, chief inspector, spent a year on secondment in Atlanta, Georgia, during the early 1990s. He said he had been struck on his return to the UK by how similar Tony Blair's rhetoric on schools was to that of Bill Clinton, who was known as the "education governor".

Mr Bell said he felt that Britain had a great deal to learn from the US because the diversity of education provision in its different states meant it acted as a "laboratory for school experimentation".

But he warned of over-stating the American influence. "Lots of people have gone across the Atlantic, said 'That's interesting', then come straight back again," he said.

One of the Clinton administration's greatest successes has, however, clearly inspired one of Labour's.

Head Start, the multi-billion dollar programme to support under-fives in disadvantaged areas, was the father of Sure Start.

Leisha Fullick, of London university's institute of education, said that the influence that America has had on childcare in the UK went even further. "It's the whole stress they place on early years, right down to Sesame Street," she said.

Ms Fullick, who is an adviser to the London Challenge, has also been impressed by another US scheme which has been replicated in the UK.

Teach America, an initiative in which high-flying graduates are placed in city schools after only six weeks' training, was imported to London as Teach First.

Earlier this month, the first Teach First Week was held in London, a copy of Teach America Week where celebrities are sent to work as guest teachers (a telling difference was that the US schools were visited by A-listers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dennis Hopper and the rap producer Dr Dre, while the most famous guest teacher in London was Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy).

But the best example of an initiative borrowed from America and modified to suit the UK is the specialist schools programme.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, has a long-held fascination with the US education system and has devoted a chapter in his forthcoming book to the subject. A graduate of Harvard Business school, he worked for Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is chief executive of The American Institute for Foreign Study, which he founded in 1964.

Sir Cyril is gleeful when he talks about how closely the specialist school and technology college programmes were modelled on magnet schools, which specialise in subjects such as maths and science and were first launched in America's inner-cities in the mid-1980s as a way of attracting white suburban pupils into schools in black areas.

The other inspiration was Georgia's "P through 16" initiative in which high schools are made to collaborate with local middle and elementary schools.

"We copied that word for word!" Sir Cyril said.

Sir Cyril has used his influence to import a series of other American initiatives.

Around 300 specialist schools have followed the example of inner-city US high schools and become Cisco and Oracle academies, training 16 to 18-year-olds in computer skills leading to industry-standard diplomas.

The trust has also encouraged schools to try SuccessMaker, a computerised literacy and numeracy scheme which has had its biggest successes in American prisons.

Interestingly, rather like America's embrace of the Beatles' successful take on their music, there is considerable intererest in the British interpretation of the specialist schools idea. American academics are suggesting that a British-style specialist scheme could work in the US.

Professor Hill is one of a team of a dozen US educationists who visited England last month at the request of the Specialist Schools Trust. He points out that the UK made significant changes that he implies improved on the original US magnet school model.

The first is the way the British schools involve local businesses and the community by making them raise sponsorship money, which is then multiplied by the Government. The second is that ministers in England are pushing to make all schools specialists, rather than just giving the benefits to those in inner cities.

"The British innovation is to make specialist schools the norm rather than the exception," he said.

Professor Hill adds: "Though the US needs something like specialist schools, it is still not as well-prepared for such an initiative as England was five years ago." And here lies a key problem. Though some initiatives can be easily copied across the Atlantic (Britain's Teacher Support Network, for instance, is now setting up a version of its teacher helpline in Chicago), the differences between the two countries mean that others cannot.

America's federal system makes nationwide reform extremely difficult. Only around 8 per cent of schools' funding comes from central Government and the US's powerful teachers' unions make it far harder for politicians to push through radical changes.

Perhaps the biggest difference between UK and US schools is the level of headteacher autonomy. While British secondary heads control budgets of millions of pounds, their counterparts in America usually control only $10,000 to $50,000.

And there are doubts whether some notable American schemes can work outside their orginal context.

For example the Conservatives want to let parents across England send their children to independent schools which charge the same as state schools, and cite the successes of voucher systems piloted in Milwaukee and Miami.

Yet American academics point out that voucher schemes only appear to work in the inner-city and only then if you limit them to disadvantaged families. There are also specific local factors that have helped the schemes succeed: Milwaukee, for instance, has a range of cheap Catholic independent schools founded by Irish immigrants whose families have since moved out to the suburbs.

But, as David Miliband, school standards minister, said in a speech earlier this year, the differences between the countries can make the lessons that they learn from each other more useful rather than less.

Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair's adviser on education, is known to be interested in America's charter schools, state-funded independent schools that can be set up by private companies and run for a profit. But many US academics believe that charter schools could learn from city academies and standard secondary schools in Britain, because they are used to handling such independence.

Andy Rotheram, a former adviser to Clinton and director of the 21st Century Schools Project, said: "Policy-makers here thought the sky would fall if schools were given more autonomy but then they look at Britain and see that hasn't happened."


Some ideas already copied from the US to the UK:

All-ability high schools - a key inspiration for the comprehensive system

Head Start - the multi-billion dollar programme was the model for Sure Start

Teach for America - the scheme where graduates teach in city schools was copied almost identically in London as Teach First

Magnet Schools - the main inspiration for specialist schools

Vouchers - the success of pilot schemes in Milwaukee and Miami inspired the Conservatives' recent policy of giving state funding to some independent schools.

Scholastic Assessment Tests (SATs) - increasingly being considered as a way for UK universities to discriminate between candidates

"No Child Left Behind" - the title of the Bush administration's childcare reforms was lifted by the Liberal Democrats for their investigation into education

Some of the UK ideas proving popular in the US:

A rigorous system of school inspections

Specialist schools

A coherent national curriculum

Greater autonomy and budgetary control for heads

"Contestability of provision" (a belief that public-sector answers are not always inferior to private sector ones)

Teacher support helplines

"Personalised learning"

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