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‘Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?’

SOLOMON HUGHES explains how Britain’s academy schools programme is really based on a plan by George W Bush

THE “academy” programme, where state schools are taken away from local education authorities and handed over to private multi-academy trusts has been opposed by the left from the start, but the failure and waste of this undemocratic scheme is finally being more widely understood.

But commentators could have grasped where the academy programme was going a lot more quickly if they understood it was copying a US model. 

The academy programme is really based on George W Bush’s schools plan. 

Tory ministers have been quite clear that they are following Bush’s scheme, but the British media hasn’t noticed. 

The US has had “charter” schools for years. Charter schools got a huge boost under Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, which pushed more state schools into becoming charter schools. 

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private boards — typically made up of “entrepreneurs,” business executives and “unconventional” educational thinkers — are the model for academy schools.

So academy schools are basically a Bush policy. Our main educational plan is inspired by the man who said: “They misunderestimated me.” 

Bush’s famous statements on education include: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” and his insightful statement: “One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”  

Bush also famously declared: “I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully.” 

The simple statement that the academy policy is based on Bush’s educational ideas should have been enough to kill it stone dead.
Instead, the academy programme has got bigger and bigger. New Labour governments wanted academies to be part of the educational landscape. The Tories then ramped this up, trying to force most, if not all, schools into becoming academies.

This July the public accounts committee of MPs showed where this policy is going. 

It pointed out that “the checks that the department carries out before schools convert to academies have not prevented a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education.” 

Even if academies don’t fail, the Department for Education (DfE) “could not prove whether converting underperforming schools to academies had been better value for money than leaving them as maintained schools.”

Separately, the education select committee of MPs showed the government has spent £745 million since 2010/11 on turning schools into academies. That’s almost a billion pounds on a programme that the DfE can’t even say is better than state schools.

The trusts running academies are private, so this is a privatisation.

However, the government has argued that it “isn’t really” privatisation because academy trusts are “not-for-profit” organisations. 

However, they can funnel out money to companies run by their directors, through what are known as “related transactions,” which has led to many scandals. 

Academy trusts are also “business-like,” paying very high salaries for top staff, while often trying to cut classroom salaries.

All these failures were apparent in the “charter schools.” When he was education secretary, Michael Gove visited the US Knowledge Is Power Programme (Kipp) charter group. He also brought Kipp staff to Britain.

Kipp runs around 200 charter schools in the US. Its supporters claim it has a “no excuses” culture that gets good results for underprivileged Afro-American and Hispanic kids.

However, critics say this is an illusion. A Columbia University study found the secret of its success. Its schools have a “high rate of attrition” for children with low test scores, along with “selective entry and exit of students and … higher levels of funding.” So less able kids don’t get in or are booted out. This will improve Kipp’s figures, but won’t help pupils.

Kipp tried to disprove this with a study from a think tank called Mathematica Policy Research. Its accounts showed Kipp paid an incredible $2.1m to Mathematica Policy Research to come up with its study. That’s a huge sum for a state-funded schools group to pay for “friendly” research.

Kipp records showed other high spending. In one year, 2013, its tax filing showed it had paid an incredible $1.8m to the upmarket Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for “lodging and hospitality,” presumably for some kind of conference. It also paid Marriott Hotels $967,000 for “lodging and hospitality” in that year.

The year before it paid Walt Disney World $1.2m for “hotel and hospitality” — also probably a conference. The event was held at Disney’s Epcot Centre in Florida, the more “upmarket” bit of Disney’s magic kingdom.

There are also high salaries at the top. Kipp was founded in 1994 by Mike Feinberg. In 2015 he had a $231,000-a-year salary. Feinberg helped to shape Kipp’s “no excuses” culture. 

Kipp says it is all about building students’ “character” as well as academic success — a theme the Tories have picked up.

It says its character slogan is “Work hard, be nice.” It says its “character work focuses on the seven strengths,” including “grit,” ”gratitude,” “self-control and “zest.”

In 2016, education professor Jim Horn wrote a book based largely on former Kipp teachers’ experience called Work Hard, Be Hard — because the former teachers said Kipp wasn’t nice to its staff or pupils at all. 

Kipp had a high staff turnover, which kept Kipp management from facing challenges to their methods. Teachers said they were encouraged to scream at pupils, with head teachers giving the impression that “because of cultural differences, black students are accustomed to being screamed at … because that’s how their parents speak to them.”

One teacher reported that her Kipp school hid the worst-behaved students in the basement when visitors came by. 

Horn argued that “The Kipp model applies a psychological/character intervention programme that is sustained by pedagogical machismo mixed with no excuses authoritarianism.”

Kipp’s authoritarian model looked a lot darker this year. This February, Kipp sacked Feinberg because “an independent, outside investigation found credible evidence of abuse and harassment that was incompatible with Kipp’s values and unwavering commitment to student well-being.”

Two adult members of Kipp staff accused Feinberg of sexual harassment. At least one received a financial settlement. A former Kipp pupil also accused Feinberg of “sexual impropriety.” Kipp said the accusation could not be proved, but it was “credible.”

So the founder of a charter school chain that is a model for our academy programme has been sacked over allegations of the worst kind of  exploitation.

 

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