Comparing US Charters and English Free Schools


What can England’s ‘free schools’ learn from their US counterparts? That was the central question of a feature article I wrote for yesterday’s Guardian.

It was an interesting piece to write. I was given 1700 words (that’s a lot) and, in order to get accompanying shots for the story, I headed up to a community-created charter school in St Louis which became the central story spine and gave several useful comparison points between England and the US. I also wanted to hear about the experiences of the Education Select Committee who had toured Boston and New Orleans just before Easter. Graham Stuart, the Committee Chair, was generous with his time and provided the rather brilliant analogy of Boston being a ‘free school’ town whereas New Orleans better reflects ‘converter academies’. It was a nice way of explaining a subtle difference in the two types of schools that people often miss. I think the piece is worth reading for his musings alone.

An unexpectedly exciting part of having the piece published was the comments it gathered. The Land of Below-The-Line can sometimes be a little bonkers, but the level of conversation yesterday was genuinely exciting – both because people brought such different views but also because they engaged with the content. I often feel conflicted about getting embroiled in the comments. I’ve already had 1700 words given to my opinion, do I really need to say more more? But I usually decide it’s important to add context that sometimes gets missed out of the story because of word limits (like this debate about for profit vs non-profit) and I also always take on board what people say about my language use and so I tend to want to know more about what they’d prefer to see – even I don’t always end up changing or agreeing with them. (Which is how I ended up asking someone what they would prefer journalists to do/say and got a lengthy but useful response).

One of the reasons why I try to engage with commentors is because I know how frustrated I used to be when teaching and the media would misrepresent things. It helped if I felt that they were listening. That said, I am now also painfully aware of the complications of trying to write something interesting, informative, accurate and all to a tight word count. Sometimes (a lot of the time) what gets written won’t be perfect, and it certainly can’t please everyone. Still, I strongly believe that if you’re going to write about education you have a responsibility to at least listen to what people at the chalkface are saying hence, as long as people are engaging with the content, I’ll keep on trying to engage right back.

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