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What can we learn from successful US charter schools?

    Recent strike action from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has created further tension around the academisation of schools, with the policy being linked to issues such as school budget cuts. What’s more, critics have claimed that academies and free schools have failed to improve results significantly. But beyond this backlash, there lies merit in creating choice and competition in education. Some US Charter schools, which are similarly funded by the government but free from its control, have been shown to raise standards and act as a ‘tide that lifts all boats’ - so what can the UK learn from these successful schools?

    A need for innovation

    A key motive for encouraging competition in education is increased quality. The potential for a free school to open and ‘poach’ students - and therefore funding - acts as an incentive for existing schools to keep parents satisfied. One way in which a school can remain competitive is by innovating their teaching techniques. Organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation, which aids evidence-based practice, are one step towards progressive education- but the current system deters innovation from happening in the first place. Performance Related Pay (PRP) alongside stringent inspections based on compliance means that teachers and schools face a high penalty if innovations are unsuccessful. On the other hand, US Independent School inspections can take into account the fact that a school is experimenting through a self-study component, whilst still holding it accountable for its overall performance. This appears to have paid off, with many US schools being recognised for innovations such as student-led governance and gamified lessons. Similarly flexible inspections can therefore allow UK academy policy to create cutting edge education, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ system.  

    Focus on failing schools

    In the US, 15 states have laws giving preference to charter schools that will replace failing schools or serve at-risk students, or require that such students are given priority. In a sample of 39 districts, 90% of those in states with such laws had a positive impact of charter enrolment on maths results, compared to only 59% of the districts that don’t. The finding that students from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit the most from charter schools has also been replicated in other studies.

    Similarly, the original role of academies was to improve underperforming schools through the ‘sponsored route’. However, the policy expansion has focused on converter academies, which tend to have better exam results and less disadvantaged students than the average school.  As of May 2016, 70% of academies were converter academies and there have been claims that the ‘very best’ schools are given priority when application decisions are made. Although some converted academies have been successful, sponsored academies appear to show the most progress, as in the US. Government funding is limited and the costs of the academy policy are spiralling - prioritizing failing schools over converting successful schools or creating free schools can allocate funding efficiently.


    Simply replicating what the US has done well is not guaranteed to improve UK academy policy – the two countries have different educational laws, history and context. What’s more, not all US charter schools are successful. However, following successful schools in encouraging innovation and allocative efficiency can only be beneficial. Technological innovations in education have been shown to engage students. In a country where 20% to 33% of young students are ‘disengaged’, allowing teachers to experiment with such techniques is key for creating a skilled labour force. Also, not only will focusing on failing schools increase the value for money of funding, but it can reduce the current social immobility in the UK by ensuring that all students can access quality education. There is no ‘golden formula’ for success when it comes to education - but trying what works is a step in the right direction. 

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