Review - Polarised picture of US education shouldn't provide blueprint for us

26th November 2010 at 00:00

Waiting For "Superman"

In cinemas from November 26 Rated PG

There is a striking moment in Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for "Superman", which opens in UK cinemas today, when a little girl in Los Angeles tells the film-maker she wants to be both a doctor and a veterinarian when she is older.

Daisy, a young Hispanic girl from a deprived background with only one parent in work, is blissfully unaware of the obstacles she faces in fulfilling her dream, most notably what the film calls the "broken public education system".

"Do you know what the lottery is?" the film's director asks.

"It's something you play to win lots of cash," Daisy replies innocently. But the lottery being referred to here, as the film so dramatically conveys, is not a simple gamble to win pots of money. Rather it is the harsh, albeit fair, schools admissions process that determines the future of thousands of young children in the US.

Waiting for "Superman" is a documentary following the lives of five pupils at various stages of their education across the US, each hoping to better their life chances by gaining entry to the best schools in their area.

It has attracted enormous publicity across the Atlantic, with acres of newspaper articles devoted to it; Oprah Winfrey dedicated two shows to the film.

It highlights Guggenheim's knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. The film-maker blasted into the limelight with his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which focused on the dangers of climate change and went on to become a box office sensation, winning an Oscar and reinventing former American vice-president Al Gore.

In this venture, Guggenheim focuses on a far more tangible "crisis" facing the American public - the country's state education system.

It is a cleverly created film, which shows off Guggenheim's skill in constructing a narrative that not so much plucks at the heartstrings as rips them out and stamps on them. But beneath the undeniably heartbreaking story of children missing out on a chance to improve their futures, there is an uncomfortable conviction that propels the narrative - that the entire state school system is failing.

The film is too eager to reach for the Hollywood theme - the battle of good and evil - to support its argument. Rather than portraying the complex mosaic that is the US public state school system, it seeks out heroes - and a villain.

The heroes are Michelle Rhee, Washington DC's schools' chancellor, who attempts to wrest control from the unions; Geoffrey Canada, founder and president of the Harlem Children's Zone; and David Levin and Michael Feinberg, the men behind the successful chain of KIPP schools. The villain is Randi Weingarten, president of teaching union the American Federation of Teachers.

The documentary establishes a polar opposition between the progressives and the unions, and places at its centre the charter school, a type of independent state school which is presented as a remedy for all the system's ills. But it glosses over the fact that two-thirds of America's charter schools are not hitting their targets.

What makes this film pertinent for UK audiences is the knowledge that Michael Gove has adopted many of the ideas behind the charter school programme in his academy expansion programme and the creation of free schools.

In the week that Mr Gove set out his grand plan for schools with his white paper, The Importance of Teaching, he will do well to gain inspiration from the film - but not to use it as a blueprint.

Geoffrey Canada profile, pages 26-27

UK Preview: WHAT THEY SAID ...

Josiah Byison, Learning Without Frontiers: "I thought it addressed the point that people want to make a change, but that it is the unions that are stopping that change."

Natasha Porter, lead teacher of English, King Solomon Academy, Westminster: "I think it's entirely relevant to the UK as the issues we have here are almost exactly the same. I've seen poor teachers in England - at my last school I saw teachers who were off sick for months at a time on full pay because they were 'child-phobic' and they then got good references."

Daisy Christodoulou, former Teach First teacher: "Every school system is different, but some of the questions raised in the film, such as the issue of central bureaucracy, will most certainly be relevant to teachers in the UK."

Janet Cullen, principal of Lea Valley High School, Enfield: "I thought it was a very powerful film and very interesting, but I felt it bore very little resemblance to the education system we've had in England over the past 30 years."

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