Monday, November 05, 2007

A Fresh Start?

If you had any illusions that Gordon Brown would be any different from Tony Blair hopes were completely dashed with his, ‘we’ll close failing schools’ speech. Annual targets for improvement will be given to 670 schools where pupils currently get less than 30% passes A-C at GCSE (including maths and English).

This approach harks back to New Labour’s early days in office in 1997 when arch-Blairite loyalist and education minister Stephen Byers ‘named and shamed’ the ‘worst eighteen schools’ in England.

The model for closing down schools and reopening them as brand new schools came from San Francisco. Reconstitution – “improving” low performing schools by replacing (“vacating”) all of the adults in the building was described as the “My Lai approach to school reform - you destroy the village in order to save it.”

The plans drawn up by the San Francisco Unified School District included the phrase, “If individuals do not learn, then those assigned to be their teachers will accept responsibility for this failure and will take appropriate action to ensure success.”

The primary focus of reconstitution was an impoverished area known as Bayview Hunter's Point. Six schools were chosen to be developed as 'magnets' to attract parents and children, two schools were new and four existing ones were selected for 'reconstitution'. This meant, “Removing faculty and staff [including cooks, teaching assistants and cleaners] and hiring new faculty and staff committed to the consent decree vision, philosophy tenents and program.” To help implement reforms the six Bayview Hunter's Point schools received a massive infusion of state funds and extensive technical assistance.

In 1987 two more schools in San Francisco, John Muir Elementary School and James Lick Middle School were chosen for 'reconstitution', staff were removed at both schools but this time no additional resources were provided.

However, by 1989 it was clear that achievement levels in the district were still uneven, the court appointed a panel of experts led by Harvard professor Gary Orfield to review progress. In 1993 a further nine schools were declared 'reconstitution eligible' and given one year to improve. As a result three schools were selected during 1994-5 and five more the following year. Once again teachers were singled out for blame and long-standing, experienced teachers were advised that ‘just good enough’ was ‘not good enough’.

Reconstitution made it difficult for schools to attract qualified and experienced teachers, in one school 24% were unlicensed and in another 70% were long-term supply teachers. The reconstituted schools still failed to show any signs of measurable improvement.

Gary Orfield, who chaired the committee of experts that launched the San Francisco experiment, was forced to recognise the limits of reconstitution, “My basic conclusion is that this is like open heart surgery. It is necessary in some cases, but very costly and needs a very strong supporting team to give it a reasonable chance at success. It should not be done on a massive basis because it requires a great deal of investment in leadership in creating a brand new school in a situation which is inherently difficult.”

The English version of ‘Reconstitution’ was ‘Fresh Start’ – close the school and make teachers reapply for their jobs. The scheme never really did recover from that car crash moment in 2000 when four ‘super-heads’ resigned in one week, including Carole McAlpine who was featured in a high profile Channel 4 documentary about Firfield School in Newcastle.

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) surveyed Brown’s ‘worst performing’ schools based on test results and found that from the Ofsted inspections a third were graded ‘good’, 54% were satisfactory and only 16% were ‘inadequate’. Now I’m not saying Ofsted are infallible they certainly aren’t, but if anyone is going to fail a school it’ll be them. Schools in ‘challenging’ circumstances have to jump through hoops just to get a grudging ‘satisfactory’.

How the hell does the government think they will attract heads or teachers to schools that will ‘fail’ due to an arbitrary pass rate? Some schools have been caught in a cycle of failure. The most notorious case was Bradford Academy-

· 1963 opens as Fairfax community school

· 1992 ‘named and shamed’ in the first official league tables

· 1994 placed in special measures with the threat of closure

· 1996 re-launched as Bowling community college

· 1997 out of special measures

· 2000 reopened as a Church of England school - Bradford Cathedral community college

· 2002 placed in special measures

· 2004 out of special measures

· 2007 Bradford Academy opens in September

What is interesting is that Brown’s macho ‘name and shame’ doesn’t seem to extend to big business. Despite a falling share price and sales the chief executive of B&Q still walked away with a £150 million pay off, did Brown comment on that? Then of course there’s Northern Rock, bailed out to the tune of £18 billion and only one board member, Matt Ridley, has resigned. Silent on that one too Mr Brown.

When it comes to education there is of course another way, you can trust teachers and promote a comprehensive system where parents have a good local school to send their children to.

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