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Verdict on the United States experience

The unpublished OFSTED report, School Assessment and School Improvement in the United States, includes these case studies.

New York City: "The assumptions which underpinnned the Schools Under Registration Review (failing schools) approach were widely perceived to have several serious flaws. One educationist described the approach as being little more than 'taking names'.

"The assumption is that schools have the capacity to improve themselves, and that low and declining achievement can mainly be attributed to failure by the staff. Identifying schools, and the threat of sanctions if schools do not improve, will stimulate staff to make the necessary changes. However, as was very clear from the data and the visits, many SURR schools served the most disadvantaged areas in the city, where problems and pressures were, if anything, increasing.

"The social and economic conditions in parts of New York City such as the South Bronx place them among the poorest urban areas in the United States. Such conditions cannot be used to excuse poor education. But it seems equally harsh to judge schools on their performance without taking some account of these conditions. This would imply some moves to assess schools on a value added basis that took account of differences in intake, or give them some financial advantage to attract and hold staff in what are difficult and sometimes dangerous settings.

"There is little doubt that the SURR process resulted in some stigmatisation. "

Kenmore school district, town of Tonawanda, New York State: "The central idea underlying the Ken-Ton school improvement programme is that educational change and improvement is a long-term process. It therefore requires strong commitment by those most directly responsible for delivering education in school and classroom. If school staff are closely involved in this process, feel 'ownership' of the decision, their commitment to the result will be that much higher.

"The programme is based on the school being the unit of change: each has a planning team of teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and community members - and in high schools, the students.

"One very striking feature of the programme was the involvement of all levels of staff in decision-making. Essentially there is no such thing as a 'failing school'. Rather the approach . . . has been to focus on excellence and excellent schools. Praise and celebration of the positive features of schooling have been the cornerstone of the present system.

"In promoting improvement the explicit strategy was to work first with those schools most willing to co-operate and rely on peer pressure to encourage the doubters to join in.

"The emphasis is on positive reinforcement to reach goals agreed through consensus, not on external imposition or sanctions."

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