High school miserable

Our political parties have been seduced by US charter schools. But are they any good? And do they ma

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-
authority equivalents.

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.

Big Finns

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)

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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