Growing the UK education reform movement – part 1

In the first of two articles in Education Executive magazine, Co-founder Ty Goddard shares his views about what the UK education reform movement, which is still in an early stages of development, can learn from its counterparts in the USA. The article is shared below in full:

“At The Education Foundation, the UK’s first cross sector education think-tank, we are working to ensure that the future of learning is in the hands of those who know it best and need it most – namely, the teaching profession and parents that want the best for their children. Education in the UK over the century has been characterised by tumult, overhauls, fragmentation and often politicisation.

Whilst we will perhaps never reach complete consensus, surely we can agree that reform is imperative? There is however a convergence of views between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives that schools should have the freedom to teach and structure themselves in the best way they see fit. The growth of the academies programme demonstrates an appetite for autonomy that will be very difficult – legislatively and politically – to put into reverse.

The UK is not alone in this bottom up revolution. The Education Foundation was recently privileged to host a delegation of education leaders from the United States where the reform movement is more deeply ingrained and advanced. Amongst our distinguished guests were directors of state policy, and superintendents, including Paul Pastorek who had helped rebuild education post Katrina.

All our guests had in many different ways been encouraging and laying foundations for reform on the front line. In our discussions with them about the parallels between our school systems, it was the organisation of the growing number of Charter Schools in the states that we found particularly interesting and whether we can learn any lessons from the way their ‘academy’ system is growing and developing in the US.

The UK academy landscape is nascent, but during the visit for our American colleagues we took them to an ARK school to show them what has been achieved already. The ARK model has arguably become a pin-up of Academisation in this country, with 18 schools now under its banner as of September 2012. Of the academies that have been inspected since being taken over, all but one has been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. The chain has developed a strong identity, and a strong ethos , which has seen improving results and expanding waiting lists. And ARK is not alone – the UK has around a dozen of these chains, including AET, Oasis, The Harris Federation, United Learning Trust and E-ACT that are all growing at pace. We now have 1,957 academy schools in the UK – including almost half of all state secondary schools – with more added every term.

But where will this expansion take us, should we progress at speed and is there a tipping point when a school chain can no longer succeed? Whilst the United States is by no means a blueprint for the UK, it is interesting to examine the system across the Atlantic, where the first autonomous Charter Schools were introduced twenty years ago, back in 1991.

The growth of charter schools in the US has been slightly bumpy due to the federal system and each state having to pass charter legislation – but now such laws exist across some 41 states and within the District of Columbia. Similarly to the UK, pupil academic performance and demographics have been a driving force behind the call for reform in the States. For instance where there are a large proportion of Hispanic populations, charter laws have tended to been passed earlier. In the UK too, the fastest growth of academies has been in urban areas with higher levels of social disadvantage.

The US model would indicate that this is a trend that is set to continue. Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) schools – which often take from more disadvantaged demographics – form the largest non-profit chain in the country with 109 schools franchised under the model. And eager competitors like Rocketship – which successfully turned around the fortunes of a number of Hispanic and Latino dominated schools in California – are now aiming to be ‘the biggest chain in America by 2020.’

But looking at the numbers in the States, what is very interesting is that, although the reform movement has a much more vocal parent lobby – set to be the subject of forthcoming Hollywood film, ‘Won’t Back Down’ – the pace of growth in academy chains seems to be steady. It has deepened and widened cautiously, rather than towards mass coverage of public schools.

Notably, the best successes in academy conversions in both the US and UK have not been achieved by merely converting a school, but by recruiting the very best from the teaching profession to staff it and putting in place strong leaders committed to transforming the school and unafraid of organisational change. Unafraid too, of imaginative partnerships within communities and with parents. This is what must not be lost as our academies chains grow in the UK. We cannot afford to compromise getting the staffing right nor building support and understanding of organisational change. After all, the growth of successful chains must surely rely on the strength of every link in them?

So from the land so often associated with ‘biggest’ and ‘boldest,’ when in comes to education reform, what we may be beginning to learn is to move ‘steadily’ and ‘thoughtfully’ to get it right. As Mike Feinberg, Co-Founder of KIPP says: “We feel a heightened sense of urgency […] But if we aggressively try to address all of it tomorrow, we’re going to fail. We have to have a maturity of patience.”

Ty Goddard is the Co-founder of The Education Foundation – the UK’s first cross sector education think tank