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Lessons from Blair’s School Reforms

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

From the time he took office, Tony Blair has taken a bolder approach to education reform than anyone expected of a Labour prime minister. He led a profound change in British elementary and secondary education, showing that his “Third Way,” which transforms public services by mixing in large dollops of private action, is alive and well. Potential U.S. “education presidents” and “education governors,” especially Democrats, have a lot to learn from Blair.

In education, Blair adopted the “Nixon goes to China” strategy, taking initiatives no one would have expected from the leader of his party. Rather than rejecting Margaret Thatcher’s moves to devolve funding to schools and weaken unions and local education authorities (read school districts), he built on them. Rather than pandering to those traditional bastions of his Labour Party, Blair moved them out of the way so schools could be redesigned around the hopes of families and the demands of the world economy. To date, no U.S. Democrat interested in education has booked a Blair-style “trip to China,” though some will look at travelogues.

Bexley Business Academy

One result of Blair’s initiative is the Bexley Business Academy secondary school in far southeast London, beyond the Thames Surge Barrier. Bexley is a brand-new school, built on the ashes of the Thamesmead School, which was known as the “sink school” of its area. Set in an area of council (read public) housing, Thamesmead would have fit comfortably in East St. Louis: graffiti and fighting in the halls, intimidation of teachers, “checked-out” older teachers, and younger ones leaving as soon as they could find another job. The average student was absent nearly two days a week, and fewer than one in 20 could pass the five exams needed for university admission.

Blair’s Third Way — and pictures of Blair himself — are evident everywhere at Bexley. When he and private sponsor and real estate tycoon Sir David Garrard cut the ribbon to open the new building, Blair called Bexley “the future of British education.”

At Bexley, a new school in every way, private funding mixes seamlessly with government support, and people from government and the private sector work side by side. In addition to a new £30 million building ($54 million at today’s exchange rates), designed by a private company that transforms failed schools, and for which Garrard donated £2.5 million, Bexley has a new principal, considered the best in the area. The school is free to select only the best teachers who apply and has a young teaching staff including five recent university graduates sponsored by Teach First, a Teach for America clone.

Nothing is left of the old sink school. The new building — a three-story cube with laboratories and classrooms open and visible around a central core, along with a huge wall containing two-foot-square closeup photos of all 1,000 students — says “this place is about you.” Teachers and students in their laboratories and classrooms see one another engaged in earnest work; this is a place for learning, with no time for anything else. Students who attended Thamesmead say they are living in a new world, one where they can take school seriously without being called nerds and where there is no place for noise, disruption, or intimidation.

As principal Tom Widdows says, the school was designed to give children a look at a life that is different in almost every way from the rough neighborhoods in which they live. It works because of serious student orientation to the Bexley way, uniforms that would look smart in a wealthy prep school, and instant teacher intervention to stop disruptive behavior. The school operates 12 hours each day, giving students a place to study and socialize from early morning to past dinnertime. Like America’s successful Knowledge Is Power Program (kipp) and the Cristo Rey schools, which are making a big difference in inner-city Chicago, Houston, New York, and other big cities, Bexley wraps community center and parish around school.

Bexley was also designed to challenge disadvantaged students intellectually, drawing them into science via the physics of musical instruments and into math via calculations of power consumption on the school’s national endurance champion “green” racecar. Fifteen- and 16-year-olds also study rhetoric and persuasive communication — subjects normally taught only in elite schools — starting with close analysis of the brilliant Monty Python “Argument Clinic” exchange between a man who wants a good argument and Mr. Vibrating, who doesn’t know how to give it to him:

Man: I came here for a good argument.
Mr. Vibrating: No you didn’t, you came here for an argument.
Man: Well, an argument’s not the same as contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: It can be.
Man: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition.
Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.
Man: Yes it is. It isn’t just contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man: But it isn’t just saying “No it isn’t.”
Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is.
Man: No it isn’t, an argument is an intellectual process . . . contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.

Bexley gets results. Despite a dramatic growth in student population and an increase in the proportion of very low-income students, test scores are up dramatically. Thirty percent of Bexley students now pass the five General Certificate of Secondary Education exams that are crucial for university entry, compared to 1 percent at Thamesmead. Student attendance rates exceed 95 percent, and the school has a waiting list of more than 400. This is a big change from the old Thamesmead school days, when savvy parents avoided the place and there were hundreds of empty seats.

Yes, the student population has changed slightly. Bexley serves the vast majority of the students who would have gone to Thamesmead, but it also draws students from a wide area. The newcomers too are often poor and immigrant, but they have all chosen the school for a reason. A few Thamesmead students have also gone elsewhere, discouraged by the long hours, serious student workload, rules of dress and decorum, and close adult attention.

Total break with the past

Everything about the school was designed by 3es, a nonprofit whose title comes from one of Blair’s first statements as prime minister. When asked to name his top three priorities, he replied “education, education, and education.” ceo Valerie Bragg, an experienced secondary school head, began the company after successfully transforming a school in Guilford once considered a national disgrace. 3es now works in five schools throughout England, applying the general model first created at Guilford: Focus on creating links to universities and good jobs for children whose families are disconnected from the economy; make a total break with the past by building new or transforming the existing physical environment; create a place where students can have fun by working, not by acting up; put every new student through an admissions interview that emphasizes the school’s social climate and work demands; hand-pick teachers who would rather work on a school transformation and solve problems than stick with their private routines; and acknowledge the additional work burdens on teachers by offering a pay-for-performance package that decouples teacher pay from seniority.

3es’s work is possible because of the Blair government reforms. Policies administered by the national Department for Education and Skills encourage starting from scratch, new approaches to hiring and paying teachers, and mixing private and public resources. Blair’s core constituents in the teachers’ unions and local education agencies hotly opposed these changes, but Blair made them both because he considered them necessary and because he could. As David Miliband, 39-year-old minister of school standards explained, “We just pushed these things through” despite resistance from political allies. Teachers’ unions and local education authority (lea) staff aren’t happy, but they know that the alternative, a Conservative government, would be much worse for them. Although past Conservative governments laid the groundwork for Blair’s reforms, the present Tory platform calls for a national voucher system that would virtually put the unions and the leas out of business.

As Miliband says, these reforms have not broken the bonds between the Labour Party and educators as a group: Teachers and school heads are better paid than ever before, and the numbers and quality of applicants for school posts are higher than ever before. But “New Labour” doesn’t support monopolies, even of left-leaning associations of public employees. The Blair government avoids favoring the private sector over government, caring only whether a service works. To that end, it is for “contestability of provision,” abandoning weak providers for better ones. This arrangement rewards success, not private- or public-sector status.

Another feature that makes these reforms palatable is money: The Blair government is spending more of its own and leveraging a great deal of private-sector support. Unlike the U.S. federal government, which provides only about 8 percent of school funding, London provides the lion’s share of money for England’s schools. And whereas U.S. efforts seem simply to be pumping more money into static public schools, Blair makes sure that new money isn’t spent on more of the same. Under a government plan, extra money comes to a secondary school if it adopts a specialty: a teaching emphasis on science, arts, mathematics, business, engineering, or foreign languages. Specialist schools get extra money: a onetime grant of £100,000 ($180,000) to retrain teachers and buy materials necessary for their new specialty and an extra £129 per pupil annually. Five years after the Blair government announced its commitment to this program, launched by the Conservative government in 1994, more than 60 percent of all English and Welsh secondary schools have taken on specialties. (The program hasn’t spread to Scotland or Northern Ireland, whose school systems are independent.) David Miliband and senior officials at the Department for Education and Skills (dfes) expect that more than 95 percent of all government-funded secondary schools will take on specialties by 2006.

The extra money makes a difference. The Millais language specialist school in Surrey used the initial £100,000 for language labs and teacher training. The extra 5 percent supports language classes in local primary schools, improving the language skills of children starting secondary school and increasing the demand for seats at Millais. Bexley used its £100,000 (and the £2.5 million from Sir David Garrard) to support teacher training and new construction; the extra annual 5 percent pays for teacher training and aides to assist disabled pupils.

The specialist schools program is the Third Way in action. To gain specialist status, schools must raise £50,000 from local businesses and philanthropies. This money can also support school improvement, but to get it, schools must create new outreach programs, linking students and teachers to local employers and making school programs available to adults. According to Peter Housden of dfes, this provision is more about engagement than money. Secondary schools had become insulated from the local economy by national government funding and teachers’ guaranteed government jobs. The requirement for local financial support thrust educators into the community and forced them to engage, rather than ignore, practically minded local business leaders.

Government operating differently

Blair understood from the beginning that England’s 3,200 secondary schools could not all be transformed from Whitehall, but he also had little faith in the local education authorities, which were at least as isolated and imbued with leftist disdain for local business. Thus, he and a strange bedfellow, former Tory Greater London Council member Sir Cyril Taylor, developed a new kind of organization to run the specialist schools program. Taylor is special adviser to Charles Clarke, the British education secretary — a post he has held since 1987, working for eight successive education secretaries. His experience in this post gives him considerable influence over government education policy.

The Specialist Schools Trust is a London-based nonprofit that receives major government contracts and subsidies but also derives income from fees paid by schools. It works for government but operates as a private firm with its own board of directors, stock, and balance sheet. As an independent organization, the Trust can hire the best people for competitive salaries, change staffing quickly as needs change, charge fees for service, and spend the proceeds at its discretion. It can also go out of business if government or the schools decide not to use its services.

The government provides extra money to specialist schools and makes final decisions about granting specialist status, but the Trust does the work. It recruits promising schools, helps them design new programs and train teachers in preparation for specialist status, and advises both dfes and the school when an application for specialist status is ready for approval. It also identifies nonperforming schools that should be stripped of their specialist status (and denied the extra funding), which it has more than 50 times in the past three years. In many ways, the Trust works like a good school-chartering agency in the United States (e.g., the one run by the Chicago school district), expanding the number of charter schools but also pruning out the bad ones.

Elizabeth Reid, a former local education authority head, says the Trust’s daily work is with the schools. It offers advice and training to school principals unaccustomed to dealing with local private donors and setting teachers’ pay. It advises schools on how to gain and keep specialist status and works with specialist schools in trouble, whether because of staff turnover or unpopularity among parents. It also helps schools recruit local business leaders to their boards of governors, which are responsible for hiring the principals and setting basic goals and strategy.

As the number of specialist schools has grown from 100 in 1996 to nearly 2,000 today, the Trust itself has become stretched. Although it can still offer attractive jobs to retired former principals from across England, its employees cannot work one-on-one with every school needing help. Elizabeth Reid thinks a struggling school’s best source of help is another school that has solved similar problems in the past. Accordingly, the Trust serves as a matchmaker among schools; schools asking for help pay for it, and schools providing help can use the income for anything from new equipment to staff salaries.

The Trust also organizes group training sessions and conferences, publishes highly regarded “best practices” manuals, and sponsors research on school effectiveness. It also provides a rich and user-friendly Web site that shows educators, philanthropists, and businesses where to go for information and help.

Politics intrudes. The Trust is under pressure to expand the specialist schools program very rapidly, adding more than 500 schools each year. By summer 2005, only 800 of 3,100 government-maintained English secondary schools will be nonspecialist, and the pressure is on to convert all of these within two years. The last thousand schools, however, include hard cases — from schools that see no need to change as long as test scores are good and seats are full to schools that have remained dismal despite multiple reform efforts. Rural schools also have trouble raising the required contributions from local businesses and philanthropy, though the Trust is able to help many do so.

Parents in smaller localities also complain they have too little choice, for in the smaller towns there might be only two specialist schools, both business academies. This frustrates parents whose children would fit better in a school specializing in mathematics or arts. The Trust’s remedy — allowing schools to offer a second specialty — risks diluting the specialist schools idea. The logical alternative — breaking large schools into multiple schools, each with a specialty — is a U.S. idea that the Trust has been slow to pick up.

Elizabeth Reid, Cyril Taylor, and other Trust leaders are confident, but some wonder whether the initiative has already transformed all the schools able to benefit from specialist status. A test score analysis by York University professor David Jesson shows that the first groups of schools adopting specialist status improved dramatically. Schools joining later have not improved as much — though, as Jesson points out, they might, given time. Like U.S. charter schools, however, hundreds of current specialist schools get no better test scores than old-fashioned comprehensive schools serving similar students. Too-rapid expansion could overextend the Trust and water down the specialist schools concept. Recent expansions, including accepting schools with suspect specialties, such as sports, make some specialist schools old hands nervous.

And there are critics. On the left, believers in the comprehensive school model think the specialist idea abandons the ideal of students of all backgrounds and talents being educated in the same building. Although some critics have dismissed the argument that specialist schools will increase segregation by class and race — the data show the opposite — many still fear that specialist schools will ultimately cut off the elite from the masses. Analysts also dispute Jesson’s positive findings, complaining (in an echo of the U.S. debate about the effectiveness of charter and voucher schools) that some of the apparent effectiveness of specialist schools could be the result of replacing problem students with those from highly motivated families.

Mainstream educators are often uncomfortable with using teachers from unconventional sources in transformed schools. Bexley is now involved in a nationally publicized dispute with school inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education (ofsted), which harshly criticized its teaching methods even while admitting that results are good. At the other extreme, the Conservative Party, citing the large numbers of specialist schools that have not improved, complains that the current initiative is too timid and that only a full voucher system can transform all schools.

Going global

There is no serious threat, however, to the specialist schools initiative. The Trust is both expanding in Britain and going international, now enrolling fee-paying members from Australia, South Africa, and Chile. Sir Cyril sees the specialist schools initiative as one stage in a long process of transatlantic trades on education. He started formulating the specialist schools idea after visiting magnet high schools in the United States in the 1980s and being impressed with the academic focus and student motivating power of New York City schools specializing in arts, sciences, and preparation for particular careers. He and others think it is time for the United States to reimport an idea that has been reworked in Britain. He thinks that charter schools and the movements in big cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia to build new schools on the ashes of failed ones indicate that the United States is ready.

On that assumption, the Specialist Schools Trust invited the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on k–12 Education, of which I am a member, to visit England last September to see what the United States could learn from the schools program. We visited schools, interviewed students and teachers, and spent time in the Trust, at dfes, and with the head of the prime minister’s domestic policy staff.

It is easy to imagine specialist schools working in the United States because they look and sound like well-run and academically challenging American charter and magnet high schools. The school specialty — and the fact that both teachers and students chose the school because of it — creates focus. The need to compete for students and stay visible to local foundations and businesses forces levels of teacher collaboration seldom seen in a regular comprehensive high school. The need to maintain diverse school populations also requires convoluted admissions policies and set-asides that ardent desegregationists in the United States would admire. A little less social engineering and a little more U.S.-style open competition for disadvantaged students might strengthen specialist schools.

Specialist schools resemble the small high schools sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Carnegie Foundations. And though at 1,500 students Millais is three times the size of a small American high school, it is as innovative and personalized as any small school. Its size places it between small American schools and the mega–high schools whose impersonality has terrified parents ever since Columbine.

The British innovation makes specialist schools the norm rather than the exception. Although the United States needs something similar, it is not as well prepared for it as England was five years ago. Even before the specialist schools initiative, England had a national curriculum, so schools could specialize in particular subjects yet still teach core skills such as mathematics, literature, and laboratory science. Its national tests meant that all schools could be compared on the same basis and that individual students could be tracked from elementary school through age eighteen. The schools were accountable for test results, for thoughtful instruction as judged by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools, and for keeping a loyal clientele of parents who are free to choose other schools.

Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who was vilified by British educators but who laid the foundation for all Blair’s subsequent reforms, school principals learned how to hire and fire staff and manage budgets. Thatcher also started the “devolution” of money to schools; principals now control 90 percent of all the funds appropriated for schools, a long way from the American practice, where school districts control virtually all spending, leaving principals $10,000 to $50,000 a year to spend on copiers and bus trips.

The specialist schools program would have struggled without these preconditions. A few committed individuals might have transformed schools, but most schools would probably have used the extra money to do a little more of the same and treated the Trust training programs as part of a broad menu of professional development options, just as U.S. schools often do. The additional specialist schools money, impressive at first, is no more than what hundreds of U.S. high schools have received — and used to little effect — from foundations and government agencies bent on school transformation.

It can happen here

Although our federal government has less leverage than a British ministry, state leaders can act as aggressively as Blair. State governments have constitutional responsibility for education, and there is almost nothing, aside from breaching separation of church and state, that they can’t do. States can set standards that require schools to teach core subjects well. States can track students’ progress from kindergarten through age 18. Any state can reform its school finance system so that money follows students to schools and school heads control spending. Any state can require struggling schools and districts to form partnerships with private funders and employers.

Within the next few years, states with determined governors could create Third Way reforms on the basis of school-level freedom of action and contestability of provision. To do this, governors would need to take some initiatives of their own, but they could also use the leverage No Child Left Behind has given them.

On their own, governors could press for more transparent school funding, appropriating state money on a per-pupil basis and allocating it directly to the school a student attends. This change alone would revolutionize public education, ensuring equal per-pupil spending and collocating control over resources and responsibility for instruction within the school. Extra weights for low-income or non-English-speaking children could give schools in poor neighborhoods a chance to improve and give other schools the incentive to compete for disadvantaged students.

Armed with No Child Left Behind, governors could also press districts to do something about schools that fail one generation of students after another. They can insist that districts either fix failing schools quickly or create new alternatives for children at risk. They can even threaten to disband recalcitrant school boards and replace them, either with newly elected boards or with state-appointed agents. Finally, they can insist that districts seek financial support and expertise from foundations and private companies, especially in creating new high schools that link children to the realities of a changing economy.

Governors in the states that have charter school laws (a majority) can insist that districts use those laws to develop new schools. Charter school laws create public schools that work with community partners, control their funds, hire teachers, and depend on family choice just as specialist schools do. Governors in states without charter schools can insist that districts use their ample powers to create new schools that will control money, admit students by choice, and select teachers on the basis of fit.

Governors won’t be alone in this effort. No Child Left Behind has emboldened mayors and superintendents in cities such as New York and Chicago to abandon the idea of running high schools from a central office, to seek private-sector partners, and to increase school-level control of money and teacher employment.

The Blair model

With such changes in place, reforms as deep as Blair’s are possible in the United States. Governors who lead as Blair has would attract strong foundation and business partners. They could also make effective use of U.S.-based school transformation groups (e.g., kipp, Total Quality Schools, and the Southern Regional Education Board’s High Schools That Work) that can work effectively in hundreds of high schools.

Blair and his cabinet had to deal with every issue that opponents of standards and choice raise in the United States. Blair’s New Labour Party engaged in a dialogue with its government and constituents that resembled the Monty Python argument sketch. They started with the argument that schooling was too important to be left to a protected monopoly. When opponents said principals couldn’t handle responsibility for funds and teacher hiring, Blair said, yes they could, and proved it. Similarly, they argued, the ablest people would avoid teaching jobs if pay were linked to performance. No, they wouldn’t, was the answer; teacher numbers and quality would improve. Schools would lose their focus and pander to families if parents could choose; no, they wouldn’t. School segregation would get worse; no, it wouldn’t. If local school boards lost control over schools, children would no longer learn about democracy and tolerance; yes, they would.

Elizabeth Reid recalls that Blair and his cabinet faced these and all the other arguments now offered against charter schools and accountability in the United States. They talked to their critics but didn’t give in. With the Tories as the only alternative, and extra money on the table, core Labour constituencies such as teachers’ unions weren’t going to defect. This should sound familiar.

The most important lesson of Blair’s initiative is the importance of political leadership, especially from the party that considers itself the home of government employees and their unions. A new Democratic governor might be uniquely positioned to drive reform deep into American public education, but he or she would need to lead and to understand that core constituencies deserve a hearing, not a veto. Unions, school district administrators, and high-income liberals who stay with public schools because their children can get the best of everything will object to a Third Way reform, but they won’t vote Republican.

As in the United Kingdom, the future of American public education is largely in the hands of the left wing of the Democratic party. Bush has established pressure for reform and freed up some new money. Democrats must now choose between building on what the opposition has done or letting unions and public employees dictate their policies. They can accept the continued failure of public education, especially in the big cities, or they can lead an open search for ways of promoting better schools. President Clinton pressed hard for his party to accept charter schools because they bring the advantages of contestable provision while keeping schools public. Soon we will know whether today’s Democratic officeholders can lead in similar ways.