Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Michael Gove and the Conservative education team, is founder of the New Schools Network.
This time last year, I went to New York to look at a new type of school which I was told had been getting phenomenal results in the poorest areas – charter schools. I wasn’t disappointed. These schools – often set up by teachers in cheap, even cramped facilities – have been achieving astonishing results with children who had, until then, been completely failed by the system.
Take the KIPP group of 82 schools. Set up by two teachers in their twenties, it is now running in 19 states. I went to one in Harlem – perched on the third floor of an existing public school. You have to go through the state school to get to the charter – and the contrast could not be more obvious. On the ground floor three police officers were ineffectually trying to deal with a 13-year-old girl who stole one of their hats then flung it back at them, swearing at them as she sauntered off. What did they do? Shrug and walk back into their office.
Go up two flights and kids from the same street, with the same background of poverty, will walk up to you and offer to show you around their school. You walk past doors named ‘Yale’ or ‘Harvard’ (after the universities of the teachers – to make it clear that they expect the same of the children). The entire school is a haven of calm and the results follow.
What makes these schools succeed? Three things. First, they have allowed exciting, young, innovative teachers a way of doing something better. Teachers who would otherwise have left education in despair are able to set up their own schools and get it right. It’s not just teachers – philanthropists, groups of parents, charities and others have set up schools. Second, charter schools are given freedom over the things that matter – curriculum, pay, discipline – while still being held accountable for their results. Third, and most importantly, people decide to send their children to charter schools – they don’t get sent there. Often, they queue round the block to get admission.
My experience of those charter schools helped convince me to set up the New Schools Network. But what made it really clear that these new schools could transform education standards in this country is the large, and growing, number of studies which have demonstrated their success. My individual experience was inspiring – but anecdote doesn’t translate into good policy.
What do those studies show? Where charter law has been implemented properly – for example in New York, in Boston and in Chicago – the results have been astonishing.
In New York, a Stanford professor found that charter schools closed the gap between the performance of children in the richest part of New York and children in the poorest part by 86 per cent in maths and 66 per cent in English. A Harvard professor found that one of the charter schools in Harlem, part of a huge project called the Harlem Children’s Zone, closed that gap completely in maths. In Boston an MIT professor found that 'charter schools appear to have a consistently positive impact on student achievement in all…subjects’. In maths in particular the effect was ‘extraordinarily large’. A separate study found that KIPP schools – the ones in Harlem – had a big impact on their students. In Chicago meanwhile a study from Harvard and Columbia found that charter schools closed half the gap between disadvantaged minority students and the rest.
This achievement is probably why charter schools are so enormously oversubscribed. There are 365,000 pupils across the country on waiting lists for a place.
It’s not just America. The Conservatives have talked about Sweden – following in the footsteps of Blair – for a reason. ‘Free schools’ have had an extraordinary impact. They have not only improved the chances of the children attending them, but those of children across all schools.
Fredrik Bergstrom and Mikael Sandstrom of Stockholm university found that the larger the share of pupils attending new, free schools, the better the schools in the area did. A study by Asa Ahlin of Uppsala University, found that in a given municipality a 10 per cent increase in the number of children attending free schools led to a 6 percent performance increase in the performance across the municipality.
Municipalities themselves recognise this. Those with a larger proportion of pupils in independent schools attribute that improvement to those schools. Parents also agree. More than 90 percent of parents thought that they should be able to choose the school their children attended. And those who sent their child to free schools were much more satisfied – 91 per cent were happy compared to 63 per cent attending ordinary state schools.
In Alberta in Canada, parents have complete choice over the school they attend – Alberta gets better results in international tests than any other English speaking jurisdiction.
Even if you don’t buy the logic of choice, you can’t argue with the evidence. Children are being saved from schools run badly and complacently by politicians and vested interests, and given a chance to do better. We need to do the same here.