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


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