Turning round America
John Hedger, deputy secretary for primary and secondary education at the DFE, Dr Barbara MacGilchrist, dean of initial teacher training at London University's Institute of Education, and James Rose, director of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education, talked to civil servants, academics and state officials in six cities in the US and visited ghetto schools.
Their trip took them to Washington, Chicago, Milwaukee, Austin, Baltimore and Miami. It dovetailed with a separate visit by Eric Forth, Minister of State for Education, who crossed the Atlantic to see how Americans were using computers in the classroom, tackling truancy and employing private companies to improve poor schools.
In Chicago, Mr Hedger's party learned how schools are run by parent-dominated school councils which can hire and fire headteachers - and have done so. Since 1988 as many as 80 per cent of schools have had new principals.
John Ayers, director of the Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed reform effort in the city, said: "They have brought in a new generation of leadership. We had a highly centralised, hierarchy before. Now it takes orders from the community."
Private business, as well as foundations, channels $27 million (Pounds 18m) a year into education in Chicago. The state also gives what is called Chapter 1 money to schools in poor neighbourhoods. This has meant city schools receiving around $500,000 extra, or 10 per cent of their budget, to spend on things they need. Many have put the money into hiring extra teachers.
At Pablo Casals elementary school, where half the pupils are black and the rest Hispanic, effort has gone into educating parents as well as children on the grounds that the family is the first educator. Special classes are held for parents at which they learn how to play with pre-schoolers, are taught about nutrition and given job training. According to the principal, John Mazurek, children's test scores are inching up slowly.
Another Chicago school, Lucy L Flower Vocational High, embarked on reform about four years ago, according to assistant principal Alice Williams. Poor scores in reading and maths persuaded it to act.
Ms Williams said: "We adopted two programmes that are working for us. They are School Achievement Structure, developed with De Paul University, and the Coalition of Essential Schools programme, developed by Professor Theodore Sizer at Brown University."
Under the first programme, the school day was restructured so that pupils could spend a double period of 80 minutes, rather than a single one, trying to perfect their reading and maths skills. The rationale was that pupils waste about 10 minutes settling down and completing the lesson, which means that only about 30 minutes of a 40-minute period is spent "on task".
Americans have been busy trying to turn around their failing schools ever since the publication of A Nation At Risk, a report which described a crisis in education, a decade ago. Some of the push has come from individual states, which have procedures for taking over or instructing others to take over schools, or school districts, where the trigger is almost always poor test scores and attendance. But much of the underlying philosophy of reform is coming from universities and independent operators.
In Milwaukee, the British party saw another city which has been aggressive in overhauling education. It has reduced the red tape with which local and state governments used to tie schools and promoted links between education and business - another common theme repeated across America.
In Baltimore, the British experts met Professor Sam Stringfield, of Johns Hopkins University, who is working with David Reynolds, of the University of Newcastle, on school reform.
They also toured Winand elementary school in Baltimore, one of the 300 "Success For All Schools", a model developed by Professor Robert Slavin, also of Johns Hopkins. Pupils are grouped for reading by ability level, not by class. This has meant groups consisting of children of widely differing ages.
Varean Dunbar, the school's assistant principal, explained that the children are tested every eight weeks. He said: "It's easy to see who's not making it, who needs to move up or sideways."
Professor Slavin says he thinks there are a handful of key requirements for schools to turn themselves around. Any reform must come from the bottom up. School staff need to make their own decisions about what to do from a number of alternatives. The school needs to be part of a network of schools making like-minded reforms so that it can tap into professional development and materials.
Focusing purely on standards and accountability - league tables and the like - can jolt schools out of complacency. But, in the long run, more is needed, Professor Slavin says. Any successful recipe for reform requires some kind of external standards together with professional development networks. The British party have taken this lesson home.