From The Editor - Flying the flag for the star-spangled banner

12th April 2013 at 01:00

Attach the adjective "Americanised" to anything in Britain and debasement is usually implied. Americanised television is trashy, Americanised language is vulgar and Americanised working practices are brutal. Even Americanised crime is assumed to be more violent than the homegrown variety.

Now it seems that large chunks of our education system have succumbed to American influences and the natives are nervous (pages 24-28). Trick-or-treating has supplanted bonfire night, the simple school disco has been replaced by the pricey prom and our sports fields echo to the regimented din of cheerleaders brandishing pom-poms. Beverly Hills, 90210 has finally vanquished St Trinian's.

If these takeovers were restricted to student culture, would anyone care? Uptight Britons have been blaming their shortcomings on imported American corruption ever since Wallis Simpson snared Edward VIII. But it's not just the students who are being seduced. Teaching practice and school organisation are displaying signs of American influence, too.

The knowledge-led curriculum that has recently made such an impact in the UK draws its inspiration from American academic E.D.Hirsch. Academies are adopting the teaching methods of his compatriot Doug Lemov. Ministers and their advisers trek over the Atlantic to see how Massachusetts organises its education. Teach First is cheerfully cloned from Teach For America. Budding headteachers embark on annual pilgrimages to American charter schools. And free-enterprise evangelicals are desperate to import from the US the for-profit state schools that remain, for the moment, illegal over here.

The question is why? Why are so many people amassing so many air miles to learn from a country whose schools are generally no better than ours and in certain respects are significantly worse?

Part of the answer is similarity. The language helps, of course, but Britain is as unequal, divided and diverse as the US. Stockholm and Helsinki may be nearer geographically, but socially and culturally Doncaster and Brixton are a lot closer to Detroit and the Bronx. Our problems are their problems. In which case, their solutions might be ours, too.

Another reason is that we have always greedily consumed all things American: slang, books, commerce, music, politics, fashion, celebrities, supermarkets, burgers. Education has not remained impervious. What were comprehensives if not idealised versions of US high schools? Didn't the Plowden report and other educational reforms of the 1960s borrow freely from the US' Great Society programme and its war on poverty? And before Hirsch weren't teaching degrees spiced with the theories of that American titan of progressive education, John Dewey? British education has always had an American accent.

The most compelling reason to buy American, however, is that whatever the system's failings overall it has pockets of brilliance. Lemov's methods, for instance, have helped his schools achieve excellent results despite being in poor neighbourhoods. Some charter schools are far better than their English academy cousins at educating seriously disadvantaged students. And if it works there in similar circumstances, why shouldn't we try it here? To do otherwise would be, to use an un-American word, daft.

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