Lessons from across the pond

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Charter Schools in the United States have been hugely successful in raising standards in deprived communities since the early 1990s
Charter Schools in the United States have been hugely successful in raising standards in deprived communities since the early 1990s. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join eight other principals on a trip to find out what we could learn from them, and whether we could use their experiences to shape the future of academies in England.

Many charter schools - just like academies - are raising aspirations not only of the pupils, but also of parents and the wider community. They are seen as aspirational beacons of hope and, in some areas, a passport out of the ghettos where social deprivation and social dislocation are rife, and where gang crime is part of many pupils' daily lives.

However, despite the challenging communities, there is a clear buy-in from pupils. Their engagement in learning and their willingness to contribute and interact in supporting and challenging their contemporaries was refreshing. Thinking and problem-solving skills were clearly evident, and one group studying philosophy left the impression that the curriculum was less content-driven and focused more on wider thinking and learning skills.

We in the UK need to reflect on how we can further engage and raise the aspirations of some of our pupils. This involves continuing the development of a buy-in to learning by building a greater understanding of the direct benefits from a good education, good qualifications and the huge impact of completing a university degree on their future prospects for employment and earning.

Chains and brands are common in charter schools, with groups and families of schools offering the synergies of innovative shared working and basic economies of scale. The opportunities that these bring - such as the co-authoring of innovative curriculum developments and the benefits of an integrated teaching and learning platform - supports the growth and development of federated approaches in the UK.

There are many similarities between charter schools and academies, but one stark contrast lies in the greater focus on college and university entrance, which is omnipresent in the United States and starts from day one. Unfortunately, this is not yet as developed in the UK. However, things are changing fast. Gordon Brown's aim for every school to have a higher education partner and the growing number of universities developing their involvement with academies are both positive steps. Hopefully our pupils will soon start to reap the rewards.

The roles and concepts of leadership within charter schools are interesting. Clear demarcation lines exist between managers and administrators running the school. Teachers appear to have significant autonomy within their classrooms, with middle managers working more as administrators in subject areas. The UK model appears to develop more multi-faceted leaders on the lead practitioner model. Staff therefore have a broader and wider set of skills that encourage a more holistic approach, seeing the whole person and being more able to address their wider developmental needs.

Although they share similar issues and challenges, it is debatable whether academies and charter schools are siblings or - more likely - cousins. Clearly, there are strengths and areas for development in both approaches. If we are to continue raising standards for all pupils in all settings, we must continue to share and learn from experiences with colleagues both here and abroad.

David Wootton, Executive Principal, Grace Academies. (Solihull and Coventry.) His trip to the US was organised as part of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's leadership development programme. For more, see: http:www.schoolsnetwork.org.ukaffiliationacademiesdefault.aspa.

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