United Kingdom Pursues Scattering of Rigorous, Free-Market Education Reforms

Published July 19, 2012

To the dismay of United Kingdom teachers’ unions, this school year 600,000 British students will be tested on basic grammar and writing.

Ten- and 11-year-olds must be able to spell, use apostrophes properly, and identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives to pass the test, part of an education overhaul. UK officials have begun making drastic, market-influenced reforms, alarmed by the country’s slide on international rankings. The U.S. has seen a similar slide.

Reforms in the highly centralized education system are coming from the top-down and the bottom-up through organizations like the New Schools Network, the only organization in the UK whose sole purpose is promoting charter schools.

“There isn’t really an area of education in the UK that isn’t being reformed,” said Rachel Wolf, NSN’s CEO. “There’s a feeling among the government and the public that the [education]system has gotten worse.”

Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development releases results from its student assessment of 34 countries, also known as PISA. Britain’s student scores have declined dramatically in the past decade—the country fell from eighth in math, fourth in science, and seventh in reading in 2000, to 28th, 16th, and 25th, respectively, in 2009.

The U.S. turns out similarly low scores. In 2000, the U.S. ranked 15th in reading, 18th in math, and 14th in science.  In 2009, the U.S. rose to 14th in reading literacy, but dropped to 17th in science and 25th in mathematics.

British teachers unions have threatened to boycott the tests. But the tests are minute adjustments to a decaying system, said Sam Bowman, Head of Research at London’s Adam Smith Institute

“The government should be implementing a very hands-off approach to education because it seems incredible to me that anybody could think that anybody has children’s interests at heart better than their parents,” Bowman said.

Teaching the Basics
About 20 years ago, University of Virginia English professor E.D. Hirsh published research indicating background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. To think and communicate well, he concluded, students must learn core content common to the U.S. culture, such as basic history, classic literature, and math principles.

“There is a broad move afoot in the UK to move to a more knowledge-centric curriculum, and that’s the wise and good thing to do,” said Robert Pondiscio, a spokesman for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation.

UK reforms range from structural changes to better curriculum and more rigorous exams for high school students. Returning to a content-based education is somewhat inevitable because the alternative does not work, Pondiscio said.

Free Schools and UK Vouchers
Three years ago, the UK began allowing “free schools,” autonomously functioning, taxpayer-sponsored schools similar to the U.S.’s charter schools. About 200 have been approved so far, “adding additional capacity, innovation, and competition,” Wolf said.  

School capacity has been an enduring problem, Bowman said. To remedy this, he supports extending the free-school program to private schools, and allowing them to make a profit.

“That way, you are able to harness the power of the private sector that exists right now and do so in a way that’s beneficial to children of the poorest parents who I think are the people that need the help of the private sector the most,” Bowman said.

More Autonomy, Higher Expectations
Some government schools are also being revamped into academies—schools with more autonomy, either through new management if former management was ineffective, or without district control if they have been high-performing. Thousands of schools have chosen to become Academies since 2009.

Other significant reforms target vocational education and tougher school inspections. The government is also modifying teacher training, increasing incentives for well-qualified graduates to become teachers, and lifting job protections for underperforming staff.

“[The U.S.] combines one of the most flexible labor markets in the world with one of the most sclerotic in public education. This makes no sense,” Wolf said. “Principals have to have the ability to remove teachers who aren’t helping kids, and retain and reward those who are.”

Governments should allow as much diversity and experimentation within education as possible, Bowman said, meaning nearly total independence from government control.

Image by UK in Italy.