In the US, the struggle for the educational soul of the nation is hotting up, with advocates and opponents of charter schools (read academies and free schools in our context) finding that the influence of big business and big money and swish presentation is wooing an increasingly large and increasingly economically diverse (read poor) group of parents into the so-called benefits of charter schools. The crass idiocy of much of the language in the Republican Party presidential nomination debates gives you some of the idea of how much space to the right there is for the educational world to drift in the US. This desperate account from Diane Ravich’s blog today gives a little insight (there are thousands like it) of the impact of the kind of educational philosophy espoused by many charter schools upon the teachers who work in them and the children who are educated there. The pattern is vaguely familiar to us, though sounds much more vicious in many US districts because of the huge polarisation in “informed” opinion about the efficacy of US public schooling. Some charter sponsors spend a lot of time, money and advertising running down the state of public education before entering the field and saying that they are “the solution”. Whole newspapers swing behind some charter proposals, where we in the UK tend always to be more ambivalent, partly because of the existence already of the private sector and grammar schools. What we tend to share with the US are two features, perhaps more noticeable in the US as the home of democratic thought in the modern era: one is the general erosion of the voice of the public in the decision making process, and the other is the increasing trend to see children as students and scholars rather than as children – another of Diane’s blogs today asks the question “Is kindergarten dead?” and explores the encroachment of the global education reform movement on the needs and learning requirements of the under-6s.
We in the UK have a raft of legislation, much of it brought in by the current administration, that may well protect us from the worst excesses of corporate culture affecting our children; we are in any case much less in thrall to the vast sums of money that the plutocratic US system chucks about and commands respect for. In addition we are more centrally controlled (still) than the US, despite the fragmentation of our education landscape. But I think we are still in danger of a more corporate approach to education, to which the only really reliable bulwarks are democratically elected education leaders at a local level (akin to school superintendents in the US) combined with well-funded local authorities with the clout to support schools and define a truly local vision for education. The broader the system nationally, the worse it is likely to be, because it will not be responsive to local communities. A national curriculum might work and enhance the education in small countries with well defined, fairly unitary cultures (like Finland), but for a big, rambling thing like the English school system, much more local content and leadership is required.
Diane’s blog is full of well-moderated scare-stories of parents, teachers and pupils within the charter system. Not all charters are bad – I am a big fan of High Tech High in San Diego – an educational opportunity taking advantage of certain freedoms rather than a corporate trying to cash in and impose a view of learning. But many charter sponsors seek to undermine the very public system that they were designed to complement rather than replace.
This is not good for a democratic society which has many features of local accountability we would give our eye-teeth for in this country, and it is not good, in general, for children or teachers either.