London In an oft-handed conversation with the equivalent of a high school civics teacher, I got a quick course in so-called English school reform which was every bit as scary as the charter school movement in the United States though different in some interesting ways as well.
The bottom line is that over the last 14 years almost 3500 schools in England have jumped from the local control of community educational authorities to an autonomous status approved by the central government. Originally the door was opened by the Labor Party government of Tony Blair responding to the problem of poor, nonperforming schools in 2000 about the same time as President Bush was moving on No Child Left Behind in 2001. The Conservative government put the program on steroids by cutting funding for what they called “specialism” or technical and technology training leaving schools short by about $250000 pounds per year. But, similar to the way public schools were usurped in New Orleans after Katrina when they were out of money, but could access federal money from the Bush Administration on a trial if they became charters, the British government would make up the deficit if these schools, many of them our equivalent of high schools, became “academies.”
All funding for schools in England comes from the central government so the local funding stream of school-based property tax which also empowers governance from locally elected school boards is not an equivalent factor. These so-called “autonomous schools” no longer under local control with many run by nonprofit educational trusts, could get “sponsors” for the schools to help meet expenses but his was also true of all of the schools in England. One important distinction between these academies and charter schools though that is worth noting is that they were not allowed to be selective. In order to be approved to make the switch, they had to agree to educate everyone in the local service area or school district.
My new teacher friend was a member of NUT, the National Union of Teachers, one of three teachers’ unions in the country and the most aggressive of the group. All unions and many other community forces have opposed the creation of these academies, though in fact her school where she was teaching had also made the conversion. Some of the deals were almost bizarre. Given land costs in the UK, her local authority had required a 125 year lease before turning over the school in order to prevent any educational trust from trying in the future to finance themselves by selling off the property to move to cheaper digs. Sounds like the money may come from the feds so to speak, but the land was acquired by the locals giving them so say, even if saying “so long.”
Some US-based researchers have noted that a big difference between the charter movement and the academy movement has been the top-down testing and standards regime required in the US as opposed to the bottom-up autonomy push in England, which seems a principal empowerment play to many. Despite my skepticism, early results seem positive. Some of the academies are now being run by cooperatives, which others refer to as “a good pill for a bad policy.”
I have to warn that I could be missing some of the subtleties here. There’s also a “free school” movement which seems even a more blatant attempt to privatize the school systems and rather than “free” these schools seem totally high-end private operations. Nonetheless, this was new to me, and is worth us trying to all get our arms around to see if where they are going is also where we are being pushed and pulled.