LONDON — 1776 is a number with great resonance for Americans, but not one you expect to be featured on a British government website.
But there it is, on the home page of the United Kingdom’s Department of Education: “As of 1 April 2012, there are 1776 academies open in England.”
Academies, as you might expect, mean something different in Britain than in the United States. They are, approximately, what we would call charter schools. And there are 1,776 of them largely because of the energy and determination of British Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Britain, like America, has gotten pretty dismal results for years from its (in their terminology) state schools. (British public schools are expensive boarding schools; they include Eton, which produced David Cameron and 12 other prime ministers, and Fettes, its Scottish equivalent, which graduated former Prime Minister Tony Blair.)
This is a problem that has been recognized by all three British political parties. Blair’s New Labor tried to instill more accountability with extensive testing, much like George W. Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind law.
But many tests got dumbed down, and the results have been disappointing. Education in both nations has been dominated by what Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett called “the Blob,” the combined forces of university education schools and teachers unions, which have a bias against rigorous learning and testing.
The Blob wants students to have lots of self-esteem and deems it oppressive to demand that they learn to read or do multiplication tables.
As a result, British and American students think highly of themselves but do much worse in reading and math than their counterparts in countries like Singapore and South Korea.
Gove argues that this is “a huge crime.” “Traditional subjects taught in a rigorous fashion,” he says, “help poor children graduate to the middle class.” In contrast, “inequality is generated by poor schools.”
Gove is an example of upward mobility through good education. His parents, who didn’t graduate from high school, scrimped and saved from his father’s income as a fish merchant to send him to an all-boys, fee-paying school in Aberdeen, Scotland.
One of his teachers suggested he apply to Oxford. He got in and became president of the Oxford Union, the well-known debating society. That led to jobs in journalism and then to Conservative Party politics. He was elected to Parliament in 2005, and in his first term became shadow secretary of education.
When the 2010 general election resulted in Conservatives falling short of a majority, Cameron was prepared with a list of policies with which the party was in agreement with the Liberal Democrats.
Like some U.S. Democrats, the Lib Dems had become disillusioned with state schools’ performance and the teacher unions’ objections to accountability. Education became one of the issues on which the Lib Dems decided the two parties could work together, and they continue to do so despite Cameron’s failure last week to produce the Conservative votes needed to pass the Lib Dems’ proposal to change the House of Lords.
Gove has insisted that state school pupils read 19th century literature — Byron, Keats, Dickens, Jane Austen — and study a foreign language. He has pushed more instruction in history and geography, and higher standards in math and science.
His greatest innovation is the academies — an idea he picked up in Sweden, of all places. Individual schools, local school authorities, businesses, universities, charities and religious organizations can petition to start academies. But they have to meet certain standards to be approved.
Like many American charter schools, the academies can set their own pay and devise their own curriculum and schedules; they receive the same per-pupil funding as state schools. The idea is to liberate education from domination by the Blob, and the results so far seem encouraging.
Gove’s policies cannot be entirely replicated in the United States. Britain’s central government has full authority over schools in England (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own systems), while in the U.S. education is largely controlled by state governments and local school boards often dominated by teachers unions.
But we might do well to keep an eye on Britain’s 1,776 academies, which now number 1,957, as a subsidiary page on the website informs us. We English-speaking peoples have been lagging behind on education.
We can do better, and as Gove says, those most in need are the poor and disadvantaged.