As polling day nears, it's dispiriting to see so little choice and diversity in the parties' proposals to improve our schools - and I write as someone who teaches in a comprehensive. Labour, the Tories and even the Liberal Democrats seem to think that introducing a more free-market system will raise educational standards; but all three parties have so far failed to tackle the problem of the way schools admit their pupils.
How did such a consensus come about? I suspect that too many ill-informed policy wonks have been visiting the US and Sweden. Dazzled by what they have seen in certain schools there, politicians are now suggesting that "charter" schools - institutions freed from state control and run by private companies - are the magic bullet. With academies, Labour has set up charter schools in all but name: privately sponsored, independent schools funded by the taxpayer. But Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, is an even greater cheerleader for them. "The best American charter schools, such as those run by the Knowledge is Power Programme (Kipp), specifically target children from disadvantaged homes," Gove has said. "And by applying certain tried-and-tested, thoroughly traditional teaching methods alongside technical innovation, they get fantastic results."
The success of Kipp has made our politicians of both the left and the right very enthusiastic about charter schools. Steve Mancini, Kipp's public affairs director, gave me an overview. Having initially been set up by two teachers, Kipp schools now enrol 21,000 pupils, with most of them coming from low-income families. "Despite being confronted with the challenges that come with growing up in poverty, students make significant academic growth while at Kipp," Mancini told me. "Kipp has had remarkable success in preparing students from low-income families for university. Although less than 10 per cent of this population usually gain acceptance to university, over 80 per cent of Kipp students have matriculated to higher education institutions."
Strictly come learning
But while these statistics have persuaded UK policymakers that we should imitate Kipp's model, one wonders if they have researched it in depth. First, Kipp schools are in effect selective, requiring parents and pupils to sign draconian contracts before they enter the school: only aspirational parents sign. Second, if a school fails to meet Kipp's standards, the Kipp Foundation has the right to sever its relationship with the school. "You have to deliver results, or it takes away the name," says one senior teacher. The foundation has so far ended its relationship with nine schools.
The pressure to get results in these schools is all-consuming. One overworked teacher said: "I can't do this job very much longer. It is too much. I don't see any solution with our structure and our non-negotiables." Kipp staff are seldom unionised and have little choice but to play by the rules. Given this, perhaps it is no surprise that staff turnover is high, with some schools losing half their staff every year.
If teachers have a hard time at these schools, what of the pupils? The evidence provided by inspectors suggests that pupils' experiences are mixed. Kipp schools are often authoritarian, demanding high levels of obedience, which is frequently manifested in the form of chants, songs, ritualised greetings and public humiliations. Much classroom time is conducted in silence, with pupils being shamed for the smallest of mistakes; in one account, a student was publicly reprimanded for missing out one full-stop in a piece of work. It appears that pupils are micro-managed to a prohibitive extent. One inspector reported: "At 9.35am, the school leader says 'Kipp one' and students respond, 'Be one.' She gives students seven seconds to put their morning work in their folder, close their folders, place their pencils on the side and put their name tags on."
Perhaps, given this, it's not surprising that half the teachers at a selection of Kipp schools told inspectors that maintaining discipline was challenging. On the flipside, students consistently report that the schools are "strict". "Here, it's very strict and it doesn't give us a lot of freedom, but it will get me to college," one student wrote.
Kipp schools are forbidding places because teachers prepare pupils for tests rather than fostering genuine learning. Surveys have shown that, at some Kipp schools, nearly 60 per cent of students don't believe that their lessons challenge their thinking.
“At some point, everyone at my school has thought about quitting," Josh Zoia, the founding principal of Kipp Academy Lynn in Boston, told me. "It's tough here. Kids get up at 5.30am, start school at 7.30am and finish at 5pm or 6pm, and then have two or three hours of homework. Then they go to bed. If I sat the kids down and asked them who has ever wanted to quit, every single kid's hand would go up. The staff's, too!" Although Zoia said his drop-out rates were low, some Kipp schools have reported that nearly half their pupils leave before making it to their final year.
The number of pupils at Kipp schools is relatively small compared with the total number attending charter schools in the US (more than 5,000 charter schools serve 1.5 million children). There are almost two decades of results that we can analyse to give a picture of their value. Contrary to what many policy-makers in Britain believe, the achievements of charter schools are poor. The biggest non-partisan analysis of the schools, conducted by Stanford University, found that their performance on average is significantly worse than that of their "state-run" counterparts. The study shows that 17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than those of state schools; 46 per cent
showed no difference; and 37 per cent were significantly worse than their regular state-school counterparts.
In the UK, the news is even more depressing. Private firms are profiting at the expense of our children. A recent answer to the Labour MP Karen Buck's parliamentary question revealed that city academies have wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Sponsors now clog up the governing bodies and executive boards of many academies. These schools are answerable not to their pupils, parents or local communities, but to the companies that back them. There are many disturbing consequences that flow from this. For example, many of these schools do not seem to care about the effects that excluding troubled children might have on their local area: academies exclude twice as many pupils as their local-
As with US charter schools, while there may be individual success stories, overall performance is poor. On average, children attending academies have worse prospects than their peers at community schools. According to league tables published in January, 41 of the 301 schools under threat of closure for failing to meet GCSE exam targets the previous summer were academies; this, even though most children enrolled in academies spend considerably more time there than pupils do in other schools.
Our politicians have not done enough homework. Finland, which has the best schools in the world by all measures, is a country where all pupils attend local, non-selective schools. The Finnish system is very much like the one that the Campaign for State Education (Case) has been advocating for years. In Finland, properly resourced comprehensives have thrived, full of well-trained teachers and without selective schools to compete against.
As Case has pointed out, one important fact is being ignored by all our politicians: that comprehensives succeed in a fair system, when they are not forced to compete with schools that have taken the best pupils either through explicit or back-door selection. Schools very much like Kipp schools - grammar and faith schools, and academies - all have much more freedom to admit pupils they like the look of. Case's research has shown that schools which set their own admissions policies take the socially advantaged pupils (who do well no matter where they go because they have supportive parents) and leave non-selective schools to suffer.
Instead of wasting billions implementing failed, free-market policies that benefit a wealthy elite, we must make sure that all children are educated to the highest standards. The methods used by the likes of the Kipp schools must not be encouraged in the way that our political parties appear keen to do. We must end back-door selection and the manipulation of results if we are to raise standards across the board. Why are none of the political parties saying this?
Francis Gilbert's latest book is "Working the System: How to Get the Very Best State Education for Your Child" (Short Books, £12.99)