Reforms put UK at cutting edge;International file;Briefing

15th October 1999 at 01:00
AFTER THREE days of comparing notes with Canadian and American counterparts, British delegates at an international conference last month must have felt pride that the UK is now being looked on as being at the cutting edge of school improvement.

The "School-age education: task, systems, performance" conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, was sponsored by the Ditchley Foundation.

It was held under Chatham House rules, preventing The TES from directly reporting what was said, and brought together advisers, politicians, headteachers and parental activists from Britain, the United States and Canada.

The Americans and host Canadians were especially critical of their countries' education systems. One US academic noted that less than one-third of students in New York City perform at levels appropriate to their ages in key subjects. Canadians cited high drop-out rates (20 per cent) and poor performance in international tests as evidence that their systems are in trouble.

Although their constitutions, which assign education to the 50 states and 10 provinces respectively, preclude the establishment of a national curriculum, the success of the national curriculum in England occasioned much interest by the North Americans. "Such a system would perhaps make even more sense here," noted one American, "given that something like 20 per cent of our students move during every school year." American reading specialists were almost envious of the National Literacy Strategy, which they heard from heads, has won over many sceptics.

"We've had all kinds of debates about literacy and strategies to raise student performance," said one participant, "but the educational school authorities in my country are not yet willing to cut through the debate and accept the overwhelming evidence about what pedagogy works best for teaching reading or take on the issue of teachers' control of the classroom and mandate the kind of direct instruction of phonics and grammar that our British colleagues have shown actually works."

The discussions on school governance were surprisingly revealing of both national differences and the contradictory tendencies at the heart of school reform.

The school reform tool endorsed by most Americans at the conference, charter schools,was at the heart of the conference's discussion of whether the market mechanism is an appropriate model for educational reform.

At first the debate about charter schools seemed familiar to British delegates, harking back a decade or so to the debates about grant-maintained schools, even down to the mantra of "choice". Like GM schools, charter schools opt out of governance by the local school board and are in theory governed by autonomous boards made up chiefly of parents who can hold staff accountable for student performance.

Despite these similarities, the more the British participants learned about charter schools, the more foreign they appeared. "The charter school debate in the United States has an air of desperation about it," said one. "It seems that the Americans are where we were 15 years ago, doubting whether governments can get control of education," said another.

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