Lessons from Blair's School Reforms

By Hill, Paul T. | Policy Review, June-July 2005 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Blair's School Reforms


Hill, Paul T., Policy Review


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 [pounds sterling]30 million building ($54 million at today's exchange rates), designed by a private company that transforms failed schools, and for which Garrard donated [pounds sterling]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.

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