Failed in the USA

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
THE Government would deny it, of course, but several of its education policy packages seem to arrive plastered with United States airmail stamps. The "Fresh Start" initiative for floundering secondary schools, which has received so much attention this week, is an interesting case in point.

Cleveland, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco have all responded to seemingly intractable educational problems by "reconstituting" (the American euphemism for closing failing schools and rehiring only a proportion of their teaching staffs). 1997 was the high point of the trend - but the mixed results that the experiment has produced have caused US school districts to question whether other "last resort" policies might be more effective.

David Blunkett may be right to pursue the British version of reconstitution if secondary schools at the gravelly bottom of the performance table fail to improve. Some aspects of the plan, though, look suspect: are any headteachers "super" enough to supervise not only their own schools but up to five others that have lost their way?

But Mr Blunkett's determination to provide a first-class education for ll children is laudable, and will be especially appreciated by parents. Too many of his predecessors have been prepared to accept education standards that would not have been good enough for their own children.

However, the Education Secretary is sometimes too ready to criticise those who do not share his vision. He is entitled to point out that some schools achieve good GCSE results even though they serve socially-disadvantaged catchment areas. But he also knows that there is a snow-capped mountain of statistical evidence demonstrating the powerful link between poor educational performance and poverty. It is unfair to suggest that it is only "cynics who say that school performance is all about socio-economics".

Mr Blunkett will also be aware that his new initiative suggests once again that it is teachers, schools and local authorities (rather than politicians, parents and society in general) who are responsible for letting children down.

As the American Federation of Teachers president, Sandra Feldman, has said: no one group is to blame for school failure, and no one group can achieve the necessary changes.


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