For many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, a good education can be the key that unlocks career, income and social mobility. Sadly, the already large attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers at Key Stage 2 has widened since the pandemic, increasing by 11 per cent between the school years 2018 to 2019 and 2021 to 2022. Furthermore, In 2021/22, 43 per cent of students eligible for free school meals met the expected standard for reading and maths compared to 66 per cent of other pupils.
Doing everything we can to get education policy right is therefore a vital priority and a moral imperative. Looking at what is successful elsewhere could help us understand what might also work here.
US charter schools have been the topic of much debate since their introduction in the early 1990s. They are publicly funded but privately managed and were set up to offer more options for schooling, particularly by promoting innovative teaching and learning methods. Some emphasise STEM, others focus on arts. ‘No-excuses’ charter schools centre their educational philosophy around high expectations.
Although there is no clear consensus on what exactly constitutes ‘no excuses’, most believe in high behavioural expectations, additional parental involvement and a relentless focus on the academic achievement of all students, irrespective of background.
A typical charter school in the US is no more effective at increasing test scores than a typical public (state) school. However, when it comes to no-excuses charter schools, some evidence suggests they yield stronger academic results in maths and literacy – particularly for disadvantaged students in urban areas.
There are similar free schools in the UK that yield very strong academic results in challenging areas. However, they are not to everyone’s taste. Critics here as well as in the US are concerned that they over-emphasise academic learning and strict disciplinary standards to the detriment of some students’ socioemotional growth and wellbeing – particularly for pupils with SEN.
It has also been suggested that ‘difficult’ students are off-rolled in the interest of the school, against what’s best for the student. Some also claim that significant additional funding (largely amassed from philanthropists) could go further to explain their successes than their teaching methods and ethos.
However, it would require more evidence in support of these criticisms before any firm conclusions could be drawn. Meanwhile, it’s easy to see how chaotic classrooms make teaching and learning difficult. In evaluations of no-excuses schools, the evidence suggests that strictness on behaviour embeds self-control, self-reliance and self-esteem, which in turn inspire enduring confidence, belonging and good behaviour.
Some research also suggests that the following five good practices often found in no-excuses charter schools work well in supporting pupil attainment: frequent teacher-to-student feedback, data-driven instruction, regular high-quality tutoring, increased class time and high expectations of students.
Another aspect shown to make a difference is that in comparison to regular US public (state) schools, charter schools have greater jurisdiction to manage their own budgets, implement and design the curriculum, and hire and train teachers. This is consistent with the push to give academy schools greater freedoms, although there is little evidence that providing schools with additional freedom alone boosts student achievement.
So while we should not assume that what works in one country can necessarily easily transfer to another, we should look closely at the successes of no-excuses charter schools. Obtaining a well-rounded view of education policy elsewhere could be key to transforming the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students here – and help to narrow our attainment gap.
Recent Progress 8 scores show that some schools adopting similar approaches in the UK are performing extremely well academically and that they typically operate in challenging areas with diverse intakes. The questions for policymakers are therefore whether these practices will work in a range of different communities and whether more schools should adopt them, giving more parents access to their model.
The successes and outcomes of these schools are stark, so we should consider why these practices work. We can’t afford not to explore whether they could be an integral part of the solution to the attainment gap.
The latest social mobility commission podcast explores US charter schools in more detail. Listen here