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Barone: Like Charter Schools, Britain's Academies Aim High

By Michael Barone

LONDON - 1776 is a number with great resonance for Americans, but not one you expect to be featured on a British government website.

But there it is, on the home page of the United Kingdom's Department of Education: "As of 1 April 2012, there are 1776 academies open in England."

Academies, as you might expect, mean something different in Britain than in the United States. They are, approximately, what we would call charter schools. And there are 1,776 of them largely because of the energy and determination of British Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Britain, like America, has gotten pretty dismal results for years from its (in their terminology) state schools. (British public schools are expensive boarding schools; they include Eton, which produced David Cameron and 12 other prime ministers, and Fettes, its Scottish equivalent, which graduated former Prime Minister Tony Blair.)

This is a problem that has been recognized by all three British political parties. Blair's New Labor tried to instill more accountability with extensive testing, much like George W. Bush's bipartisan No Child Left Behind law.

But many tests got dumbed down, and the results have been disappointing. Education in both nations has been dominated by what Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett called "the Blob," the combined forces of university education schools and teachers unions, which have a bias against rigorous learning and testing.

The Blob wants students to have lots of self-esteem and deems it oppressive to demand that they learn to read or do multiplication tables.

As a result, British and American students think highly of themselves but do much worse in reading and math than their counterparts in countries like Singapore and South Korea.

Gove argues that this is "a huge crime." "Traditional subjects taught in a rigorous fashion," he says, "help poor children graduate to the middle class." In contrast, "inequality is generated by poor schools."

Gove is an example of upward mobility through good education. His parents, who didn't graduate from high school, scrimped and saved from his father's income as a fish merchant to send him to an all-boys, fee-paying school in Aberdeen, Scotland.

One of his teachers suggested he apply to Oxford. He got in and became president of the Oxford Union, the well-known debating society. That led to jobs in journalism and then to Conservative Party politics. He was elected to Parliament in 2005, and in his first term became shadow secretary of education.

When the 2010 general election resulted in Conservatives falling short of a majority, Cameron was prepared with a list of policies with which the party was in agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

Like some U.S. Democrats, the Lib Dems had become disillusioned with state schools' performance and the teacher unions' objections to accountability. Education became one of the issues on which the Lib Dems decided the two parties could work together, and they continue to do so despite Cameron's failure last week to produce the Conservative votes needed to pass the Lib Dems' proposal to change the House of Lords.

Gove has insisted that state school pupils read 19th century literature -- Byron, Keats, Dickens, Jane Austen -- and study a foreign language. He has pushed more instruction in history and geography, and higher standards in math and science.

His greatest innovation is the academies -- an idea he picked up in Sweden, of all places. Individual schools, local school authorities, businesses, universities, charities and religious organizations can petition to start academies. But they have to meet certain standards to be approved.

Like many American charter schools, the academies can set their own pay and devise their own curriculum and schedules; they receive the same per-pupil funding as state schools. The idea is to liberate education from domination by the Blob, and the results so far seem encouraging.

Gove's policies cannot be entirely replicated in the United States. Britain's central government has full authority over schools in England (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own systems), while in the U.S. education is largely controlled by state governments and local school boards often dominated by teachers unions.

But we might do well to keep an eye on Britain's 1,776 academies, which now number 1,957, as a subsidiary page on the website informs us. We English-speaking peoples have been lagging behind on education.

We can do better, and as Gove says, those most in need are the poor and disadvantaged.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

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2 Comments

  1. BillzillaComment by Billzilla
    July 16, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    Sadly education in public schools and many colleges is about how many rear ends can fill seats. Schools receive money for each student, more students equals more money. While classroom teachers generally care about how well their students do, the administrations care more about how much money comes into their schools. If the students learn something useful, all well and good. If not, oh well.

    Been there and seen it first hand for thirty years. It’s all about money, and that’s all it’s about above the classroom level. Well paying jobs, with great benefits for administrators and their cronies. Do not rock the boat! The taxpayers are told whatever they want to hear to keep the dollars flowing.

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  2. lwessonComment by lwesson
    July 16, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Barone seems to have some fixation on Great Briton. Could Barone even honestly define what a Briton is? NO!

    The Elephant in the room, that people like Barone go to great lengths to ignore, is the simple look at demographics. The willful, treasonous act of inflicting human diversity by The LEFT, in Briton, has resulted in a fracturing of what constitutes as students, in this case. Barone would not want to discuss that, ever.

    Over 20 years ago, my Sister and her friends, on a vacation, wandered innocently about in Merrie Olde LONDON. You know, the London that Charles Dickens or Kipling… once walked about in. But it is NOT the same London–England now. A police undercover van, pulled over. They were kindly escorted inside and told in NO uncertain terms, that their lives were in peril, and not to return to this area, period. Sis, did say, that they thought the area to seem populated with a very non-British people. Today, she committed a Hate Crime, for saying that.

    In teaching school, there are night & day examples of what I was handed over to teach. Put it this way, Society wants grand results for students. Jolly nice. But, it is like handing a bunch of bent nails, warped wood, and telling someone to build The Golden Gate Bridge… . It gets worse than that. As The Nanny State grows, it has pulled in teachers, as a form of welfare state employment. Think about Obama and all the persistent jabber about hiring teachers.

    If England now reflects the US, no small wonder that we are in the Titanic together, going full speed into the ice fields. Cold tea for you Barone!

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