Wrap-up: Initial Thoughts on the European Study Mission

Tired delegation members gathered at a conference center in London following 11 days of intensive study of schools in three nations to try to make sense of what they had seen. The discussion was frank, broad, and wide-ranging. While much of this remains to be worked over and thought through, several themes emerged:

First, leadership is critical. In all of the most successful schools — Bonner Primary, Barnfield Studio School, and schools in Finland, remarkable leaders led the charge. The flip side of that coin was some anxiety that progress might evaporate in the absence of the leader.

Next, a common theme across schools (from Finland to Bonner, Harrow, and Barnfield) was sense that success depended on high expectations in and around the school, support for the individual needs of each student, and the building of a sense of community. Each of these seemed to be a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The differences between the three systems was noted. Finland with a philosophy of light steering based on trust; France with much more of a commitment to managing schools from the top down; and England with a philosophy based more on competition, assessment, and choice, very much like the emphasis in the United States.

Teacher preparation, induction and mentoring and on-going professional development came in for a lot of discussion. Roundtable members were impressed with the 10 to 1 ratio of applicants for student positions in teacher training programs in Finland, and saw nothing even remotely similar in France or England.

The impact of poverty on student achievement received attention. No one believes that low-income students cannot learn, but a clear correlation between poverty and achievement has long been established. It was noted that Finland seemed to adopt an inside-outside strategy about 40 years ago — simultaneously working on essentially eliminating childhood poverty while insisting that schools needed to do their part to build a strong society.

PISA: Roundtable participants expressed genuine concern that PISA results, accepted uncritically by the press and public figures, rest on a weak technical foundation. They were particularly worried about the fact that OECD issued data on Shanghai as though it represented China and without acknowledging the culling of low-income students from Shanghai schools due to the severe limitations the city places on millions of migrant children.

There is more. Much more. In coming weeks and months the Roundtable will be digesting this extraordinary educational journey with the intent of publishing its conclusions in the next edition of  The  Superintendents Fieldbook.

Barnfield Studio School-introducing entrepreneurship into education

Luton, a large town about 30 miles north of London, is the site of the Barnfield Federation, a coalition that includes Barnfield College (16 years upwards), Barnfield South and West Academies (11-18 years), the country’s first further-education-sponsored Studio School (14-18 years enterprise academy) and Barnfield Moorlands Primary School (4-11 years). This cluster of schools and satellites around them, enrolling some 27,000 students, recreates the role of local councils in private hands.

In a fascinating and highly engaging presentation, the chief executive of the federation, Sir Peter Birkett, described a program in which Barnfield took over two under-performing schools in 2007 and in a matter of years transformed them, through charter-like approaches, to take the schools out of “special measures”(oversight by the government) to a position in which the number of satisfactory GCSE scores have more than tripled. Ofsted, the government agency responsible for accountability and standards, judges the two schools today to be “outstanding” and “good.”

Birkett described a focus on eliminating a culture of blame (of students, parents, and communities) and replacing it with a culture of high expectations, support for student needs, and a commitment to a sense of community and standards. The federation, which has made no secret of its hopes to run these schools for profit in the future if legislation permits, has created a structure in which its scale permits it to commission support services at lower cost – passing the savings on to lower class sizes and pay-for-performance schemes that provide one-time, equal, bonuses to all employees for achieving institutional goals.

The Barnfield Studio School for 14- to 18-year-olds emphasizes vocational education. The school is heavily entrepreneurial with a Principal, Mark Cronin, who is willing to make micro-loans (which have to be repaid) for any promising business plan presented by a student. One student makes and sells cookies; another has a shoe-shine business; yet a third plans to complete university studies and enter the banking industry. The school has a florist’s shop, gift shop, hair salon, and a pizza parlor attached to it — all providing students with work experience. It forges close links with local businesses in an effort to provide jobs in the retail, hospitality or service industries.

“Academy schools,” said Birkett, “were designed to turn around failing schools. Former Prime Minister Blair wanted to inject the DNA of the business world into education. We wanted to attack the blame culture and support traditional values such as hard work in a modern culture.”  Noted Cronin: “We believe that small is beautiful. One size does not fit all. We aim to really personalize instruction for each student.”

Sir Peter Birkett briefs Roundtable members on Barnfield Federation's plans

Nelda Cambron-McCabe, Paul Ash, Don Beaudette & Jerry Kohn focus on Barnfield briefing

Greg Riccio (r) thanks Mark Cronin for his presentation on the Barnfield Studio School

Diana Smalley and James Egan chat with Barnfield Studio School students

Roundtable members thank lunch staff for wonderful meal and applaud them

The Harrow School – privilege and high expectations

Another remarkable day, this one focused on a more leisurely visit to The Harrow School. With the Roundtable’s coach trapped in Harrow’s narrow streets, the delegation walked the last quarter mile to the school to be warmly greeted by Headmaster Jim Hawkins in Form 4 of the “Old School,” site of Dumbledore’s classroom in the Harry Potter movies. Engraved on Form 4’s walls are the names of generations of Harrow students, who include such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Nehru, and King Hussein of Jordan.

Harrow, is widely considered to be one of the finest secondary schools in the world. Like its rival Eton, it is an independent, boarding school for boys; it was founded under a royal charter from Elizabeth I in 1572. It enrolls 800-900 boys, all of whom board full time. Graduates are known as “Old Harrovians.” Basic annual costs at Harrow run to approximately $45,000 annually for room, board, tuition, and fees. It enrolls students who are highly privileged and very ambitious, although a bursary (scholarship) program funds the enrollment of exceptional students from distressed backgrounds.

Harrow has a rich history and tradition. Harrow’s line of famous graduates includes eight Prime Ministers, foreign statesmen, Members of Parliament, several kings and members of various royal families, and notable figures in the arts and sciences, including George Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and hero who swam the Hellespont and wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Don Juan,” while starring himself in the latter role.

School leaders were extraordinarily generous in their treatment of the visiting Roundtable delegation. Headmaster Jim Hawkins took the time to greet us. Old Harrovian Dale Vargas (a former housemaster at the school) led us on a fascinating historical tour. And Jesse Elzinga (director of studies) and Nick Paige (head of modern languages) hosted us at lunch and patiently answered our questions about the many facets of Harrow that make it  unique and successful. Elzinga agreed that, assuming a high degree of selectivity beginning two years before enrollment, key features at Harrow included high expectations, individualized support for students, and a genuine sense of community within the school.

Class sizes are normally limited to 15 students and more advanced classes (say in the third year of a language) typically enroll eight.

Headmaster Jim Hawkins greets Roundtable in "Fourth Form" room, site of filming for Harry Potter movies

The twin towers of the Old School

Generations of students have carved their names into the wood on the walls of the Fourth Form at Harrow

Harrow boys are required to wear official uniform, including straw boaters, when walking the streets of town

Old Harrovian Dale Vargas delights in the history of his school. Here he shows Roundtable visitors the school chapel

The great hall into which the entire student body can be crammed for performances of Shakespeare and annual renderings of the "Churchill Songs," a tradition dating back to 1941 when Winston Churchill returned to Harrow to enjoy the old school songs

Jesse Elzinga (director of studies) and Nick Paige (head of modern languages) greet James Harvey and Paul Ash

Lunch in the faculty dining room

James Harvey extends the Roundtable's appreciation for Harrow's generous hospitality to Nick Paige





Policy at 30,000 feet … and education on the ground

Monday, June 25 marked one of the busiest days in a busy itinerary across Europe. It began with two hours of briefings at the English Department of Education, behind the Parliament buildings, and ended with a visit to one of the most successful inner-city elementary schools in England, Bonner Primary in the Tower Hamlets area.

The  briefings began with a brilliant summary of the history of education in England from Sue Hackman, director of the school standards group, and continued on through detailed discussions of assessment (Tom Goldman and Jane Pierce), teacher training and evaluation (David Wright and Peter Ley), a transnational school innovation alliance (Wendy Parmley, Gowrie Ishwaran, and Nichola Barratt), school funding (Nicola Ayton and Victoria Woodcock), and charter-like free schools and academies (Rory Kennedy).

The presentations made it apparent that English school policy is driven by many of the same imperatives guiding policy in the United States, namely choice, competition, assessment, and accountability. It was also clear that the current coalition government’s policies aim to implement phonics as a primary reading strategy, eliminate middle management in municipalities by driving all funds to individual schools, institutionalize earlier assessments to track students at the age of 14, and redistribute funds from urban to rural and suburban constituencies.

One of the schools likely to lose funds is Bonner Primary in Tower Hamlets, now enjoying in excess of £8,000 per pupil annually due to the heavy concentration of low-income students in its attendance area. Many of the them are families from Bangladesh (where 50% of the population lives on a dollar a day or less) who are living 10-12 per apartment to two-room apartments (“flats”) in nearby public housing estates. Bonner Primary is internationally known for its remarkable success with a very challenging student population. “This community,” said headmaster Martin  Tune, “has more child poverty than any other area in England.” It has succeeded in raising 50% of its students to Level 5 on national standards by age 11 – a standard normally sought by age 14.

Tune described a powerfully successful effort that concentrated first on raising literacy levels, turned next to mathematics, and finally broadened the curriculum to include an emphasis on arts for all. Tune stressed that instruction is individualized, that the school supports what each student needs while assiduously avoiding labeling students as special needs, and that it builds community within the school and in the surrounding neighborhood so that parents and community leaders support the high expectations it holds for students.

Sue Hackman presents a dazzling and entertaining history of education in England, starting with Latin and Greek for "him" and singing and needlework for "her" in the 1800s

Rory Kennedy (center) having finished his discussion of free schools, Roundtable's James Harvey thanks Emely Levi (r) and Cynthia Davies (l) for their hard work in setting up the itinerary in England

Headmaster Martin Tune (red tie) welcomes Roundtable members to Bonner Primary School in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest communities in England

The public housing "flats" (apartments) where most Bonner Primary students live

Children at Bonner Primary work collaboratively at computers.

Children deliver moving rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," complete with impressive and complicated harmonics and student musical accompaniment


Eurostar to London

Sunday, June 24 began in a shambles, continued in frustration, and ended in triumph.

The shambles? The bus intended to take the Roundtable to Gare du Nord station to board the Eurostart to London failed to arrive. Controlled chaos ensued as the Roundtable’s unflappable tour guide, Aidan Bartley, commandeered enough taxis to get us to the station on time. But the delay, combined with a lack of sufficient screening machines to handle the volume of passengers meant that several members of the delegation missed the train and had to wait for the following Eurostar, due to depart an hour later.

The frustration? What should have been a 30-minute ride to our hotel in north London turned into two hours of gridlock as work on the roads restricted traffic to alternating one-way flows. The result? The meeting scheduled with two commentators on education in England, Melissa Benn, a frequent contributor to the Guardian and the London Review of Books, and Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffith’s Professor at King’s College, London, was delayed an hour.

The triumph? After enjoying a smooth Eurostar ride through France at speeds  approaching 200 mph, Roundtable members arrived in London with the opportunity to watch speakers on Hyde Park’s famous Speakers’ Corner (which encourages everyone to take up a soapbox on Sunday). Rambunctious give-and-take is the polite way to describe audience-speaker interactions. That evening at dinner we participated in a spirited and remarkably well-informed and penetrating discussion of education issues with Benn and Wolf.

Roundtable members en board Eurostar about to enter the "Chunnel" between France and England

Olympic rings greet arrivals off the Eurostar in London's St. Pancras Station. The 2012 Olympics are scheduled later in the summer

A man dressed as a Texan lectures Londoners on evolution at Speakers' Corner. Speaking at Hyde Park requires handling hecklers and is not for the faint of heart.

This Hyde Park speaker had a confused message that seemed to apologize for German atrocities during World War II. Her response to hecklers turned on insulting and abusing them.

Don Beaudette and David Bickford chat with Alison Wolf following her compelling presentation

David Bickford and Diane Smalley share gifts with Melissa Benn following her impressive presentation



Paris, Je T’Aime

Paris, Je T’Aime was the title of a recent movie tribute to the beautiful city of Paris. It’s easy to see why people would love the city, given its  famous landmarks. Here are some of the most prominent sites, pictures taken on a bright and beautiful Saturday morning.

Eiffel Tower, temporary structure erected for the 1889 World's Fair, but it never came down

Les Invalides - French veterans' hospital. Built in 17th century it stil houses some veterans, but most of it is devoted to a military museum and to Napoleon's tomb

L'Opera - A fantastic building, it gave rise to the legend of the Phantom of the Opera and includes an underground pond that figures prominently in the legend.

L'Arc de Triomphe - commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victories, it saw him pass beneath it only in his coffin

Notre Dame Cathedral - a Gothic masterpiece commissioned in the 13th century

The Final Judgment -- the virtuous look on calmly from the left while the wicked worry about their fate on the right

The Nave of Notre Dame. A Mass is in progress in this working church

Rosette Window in Notre Dame

Stained glass windows, Notre Dame


National Picture in France

Friday afternoon, thanks to the courtesy of the French Ministry of Education was spent in intensive briefings from 12 senior civil servants about the structure of education in France, the performance of the nation’s students on international assessments, the role of the state and local authorities, and international exchange programs led by regional academies and by the American Embassy in Paris.

The discussion, organized by Nicholas Marque, was intense and detailed and included presentations from:

•  Christine Gavini-Chavet of the Directorate for European and International Affairs and Cooperation.

•  Philip Breeden, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs, Embassy of the United States of America

•  Christine Gavini-Chavet of the Directorate for European and International Affairs and Cooperation.

•  Chantal Manes, inspector general for modern languages (English).

•  Jean-Michel Blanquer, Directorate General for Schools.

•  Michael Quere, Directorate of Evaluation, Forecasting, and Performance.

•  Marie-Blanche Mauhourat, Inspector General for Fundamental and Applied Physics and Chemistry

•  Johan Yebbou, Inspector General for Mathematics.

•  Anne Vibert, Inspector General for French Language and LIterature.

•  Brigitte Bruschetti, assistant director of performance and communication with academies.

•  Jean-Paul Tarby, Delegate for international and European relations and cooperation for Besancon

•  Philip Simmonds, Delegate for international and European relations and cooperation for d’Amiens.

•  Ida Heckenbach, deputy cultrual attache, Embassy of the United States of America.

Ministry of Education briefing

Michele Quere presents international data

A. Vibert, M. Mauhourate & J. Yebbou analyze French performance

Darrell Lockwood (l) thanks Nicolas Marques

Roundtable focuses on presentationMinistry and regional presenters