The British Are Coming … and Bringing School Reform Lessons

Published May 1, 1998

Although Americans rejected certain aspects of the British system of government more than two hundred years ago, it is still instructive to compare how the two countries view the appropriate role of government in areas of common interest. For example, gambling is purely a private-sector activity in the United Kingdom, while lottery gambling in the United States is a monopoly operation of state governments. On the other hand, while the U.S. continues to debate whether tax dollars should find their way to religious schools, the U.K. makes religious schools an integral part of its government school system.

On leave from the British government’s Department of Education and Employment, the U.K.’s Dr. Toby Linden is in the U.S. for a year to initiate dialog among education policy-makers in the two countries, focusing on what makes for successful education reforms.

A former chief of staff for the Deputy Secretary of Education, Linden currently operates out of the British Embassy in Washington, DC, representing the British Council. The Council, an international gateway to the U.K., promotes the exchange of ideas and people between the U.S. and the U.K., including teachers and students.

Linden recently spoke about education reform in the United Kingdom with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes, who himself was educated in the U.K. at Hanley High School and Bucknall Church of England School in Stoke-on-Trent.

Clowes: What is your mission here in the United States?

Linden: My focus with the British Council is introducing people in the U.S. to what the U.K. has done to fundamentally change schools and education over the last fifteen or twenty years.

An enormous number of the issues that we have dealt with, and the solutions that we have attempted, also arise in this country, and it’s our judgment that we can learn from each other. My job is to try and connect policy-makers, so that things that have been tried in each country can be relayed and known about in the other country. Obviously, one can never carry an idea to another culture complete and intact, but the germ of an idea is often a catalyst for change.

Clowes: What did your government school system look like before the reforms?

Linden: We have a three-tier system: a national level with a government department, an intermediary level with what we call Local Education Authorities, and the individual schools. The parallel here would be an individual state, with the state level, the school districts, and the schools. The key reforms in the U.K. were to change the functions of the middle layer and of the schools.

Prior to the reforms, the middle layer controlled the schools. The Local Education Authority determined a school’s budget, appointed its staff, decided what the curriculum should be, and so on. The fundamental reform was to move most of those responsibilities down to the school level.

Each school now has the responsibility for appointing the staff, teachers, and principal, and for deciding whether to spend money on books, or painting, or playing fields, or school trips. Those decisions are made by the school’s governing body, or board of directors. The reforms required that every school in the country have a governing body to set the overall strategy and policy of the school. It is formed from teachers and staff members of the school, parents, and members of the local community.

Clowes: Where does the funding for the schools come from?

Linden: About 70 percent of the funding comes from the national government and about 30 percent is raised by the Local Education Authority through local property taxes, or rates. Essentially, the central government hands the local council, which is an elected level of government, a block of money for all social services and the local council then decides how much of that money should be spent on education. Once that has been done, at least 90 percent of the money has to be given immediately to the individual schools.

This includes both religious schools and nonreligious schools. If they’re in the public sector, religious and nonreligious schools are treated in the same way. They all get their money and they decide to spend it on what they think best.

Clowes: So private and religious schools are part of the publicly funded school system in the U.K.?

Linden: Not exactly. Private schools are almost entirely outside the structure that I’ve described. Most of the national regulations with respect to education, such as curriculum and exams, do not apply to private schools.

However, there is a big difference between the U.K. and the U.S. in that, within the publicly funded system, there are religious schools. Roughly one-third of the schools have some religious affiliation. Most of them are Church of England or Catholic, but we do have a small number of Jewish and Muslim schools that are publicly funded.

The religious schools, for the most part, have the same relationship to the Local Education Authority and the national government as do any of the nonreligious schools. Actually, they have a little more autonomy because the governing body of a religious school includes a majority of people from the local diocese or religious foundation.

Clowes: How are the schools held accountable?

The other dimension of the reforms is that, with increased responsibilities being passed to the schools, a framework of minimum standards was passed at the national level.

A very clear intent of the reforms was to make more information available to members of the public, and so every year the government publishes performance tables which show how every school in the country did on these national assessments. Also, each school publishes a report saying what they did during the school year, including how they did on the national tests and how they did relative to the local and the national average. This comparative information is available to parents, to members of the public, and to the government.

Clowes: So these comparative assessments are the primary means of holding each school accountable?

Linden: That’s a very important accountability, but there are also two other accountability measures.

In addition to the performance tables and the report from the school, we have a national system of school inspection. Every publicly funded school is subject to an external inspection, where education professionals go into the classrooms and rate the educational performance of the school: what are the children learning, how well are the teachers teaching, are the parents involved, and so on. They produce an inspection report and, within a specified time, the school must respond with an action plan, explaining how it’s going to address the weaknesses that have been identified. And since these are all public documents, the inspection is another important accountability.

And the third accountability for each school is that we have school choice. Within the public system, parents can choose to send their children to any school and the funding follows the pupil. Most of a school’s budget is determined by the number of pupils it has, and so it needs to attract parents and it needs to retain the students that are there.

Our experience has been that parental choice is an important driver in some areas, particularly in urban areas. Obviously, if you’re in a rural area with only one school within striking distance, it’s not a major accountability tool. For most of the country, it’s the other accountability ratings that are the stronger drivers–the national performance tables, the school report, the inspection report, and the action plan. They, and publicity about them, give parents the information they need to ask the right questions.

Clowes: Speaking of drivers, what was the driving force that brought about the reforms?

Linden: It started in the seventies when the Labour Prime Minister came to the conclusion that the education system just wasn’t producing good enough quality. He began what became known as the Great Debate, when really searching questions were asked about the educational system. By the late seventies, there was consensus that major changes had to be made and the Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, were able to use that consensus to carry through most of the reforms after they were elected in 1979.

There was some very strong opposition from teachers unions and, of course, from the Local Authorities who were losing a large amount of power and control. But by the second half of the eighties there was a consensus amongst the major parties that things were basically moving in the right direction.

Clowes: What were the principles that guided the reforms when they were introduced?

Linden: There were two basic thrusts: market orientation and accountability. The first means that the schools are the ones that are in the best position to respond to what parents want and to the capabilities of the children in their schools. This means that you have to give the important management and financial decisions to the school and let the school spend the money as it sees fit.

But within this market-oriented philosophy was a notion that one also needed accountability. So we allow schools to do what they want, and what they think is best, but we make sure we know whether they’re doing it, and we make sure we know whether that’s improving the quality of the education of the school.

Clowes: Have the reforms been successful, and how do you measure success?

Linden: The best measures are from a series of national tests that we do at age 16, the end of compulsory schooling, and at age 18, before going on to higher education. The results of the tests at both of those ages have been rising steadily since the early eighties, a steady improvement over fifteen years.

Clowes: What has been the reaction of the parents?

Linden: Parents have taken a much greater interest in their child’s school and there’s a much stronger public debate about education. For example, when the national tables on school performance are published each year, there’s a major debate in the national media about the quality of education, about what’s working, what’s not working, and so on. People can look at the national tables and say “Look, why is it that we’re not as good at mathematics as we are at science?” It’s clearly an important driver that people talk about education, and that they have information on school performance to talk about. Publicity is a wonderful thing, both at the national level and at the local level!

Clowes: What do you see as the greatest barrier to education reform here in the United States?

Linden: One reason why we were able to do so much is that there was the political will and consensus to make the changes. We began delegating responsibility to schools in the mid-eighties but it wasn’t until 1993–ten years later–that the final structural piece of the jigsaw was in place.

One of the hardest things about education reform is sustaining momentum and having enough consensus and coherence to carry it through, because you can’t do it all at once. One needs patience, and that’s hard to develop. That’s one of the reasons that education reform is hard in this country, with the separation of powers. Building and retaining that consensus over time is quite difficult, but there’s no other way of doing it.