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View from here - Carnage has created real choice

It shouldn't take a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina to force a rethink on how to improve the existing education system, says James Richardson

It shouldn't take a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina to force a rethink on how to improve the existing education system, says James Richardson

When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in 2005, destroying a city of half a million and claiming 1,800 lives, we witnessed scenes far removed from the shimmering glamour of corporate America. The plight of the urban underclass was glaringly exposed; people so poorly served by society, they had neither money to leave nor means to rebuild their lives.

If there was consolation to be found in Katrina's brutality, it was the opportunity to rebuild a corrupt and failing school system, regarded as among the nation's worst. In the aftermath of the hurricane, in portable and makeshift buildings, community groups took the initiative and began establishing charter schools, eager to get children back in the classroom. Free from the bureaucracy of the school district, a choice of independent, publicly-funded schools emerged.

Over half of those now operating in New Orleans are charter schools, providing a genuine choice of different educational experiences for families returning. Those declaring that choice through the market is the panacea of school improvement are monitoring New Orleans and hope to declare that it offers a feasible alternative to the bureaucratic quagmire of the American school district, which before the storm, retained control over hundreds of school policies. It is little suprise teachers have embraced the charter school movement as a way of securing some rudimentary autonomy.

A school system built from scratch is an audacious experiment, an opportunity to redesign schools to match the zenith of our aspirations. Politicians and academics in the US are constantly trying to reform a system developed over years; a layer-cake of new legislation piled on old, each an attempt to change the fundamental culture of schools. Stanford professor David Tyack, calls it "tinkering towards Utopia" - superficial changes that rarely resolve organisational problems.

So this sparks a question: if we had a blank slate to reform the school system, how would we improve it for children? We would have certain overarching principles in mind: equal opportunity for all and a non-discriminatory admission policy.

Beyond this, we would find little agreement. The comment pages of The TES have borne testament to those with radically different answers to these contentious questions, not least those who propose a market system akin to New Orleans's (minus the carnage, of course).

This experiment with choice and markets may turn out to be the ideal route to a more promising and just future for the children who survived the storm, but we shouldn't need a hurricane to force us to rethink our school system. In Britain and America, it is imperative we restart the debate without always deferring to market mechanisms in the hope that competition will deliver a fairer and superior education system.

James Richardson is Thouron Scholar at Pennsylvania University and former head of humanities at Sale High School.

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