Since the beginning of this decade, the British government has allowed private “sponsors” to manage state-funded “academies” in an initiative to create innovative, bureaucracy-free schools for non-fee-paying students in areas where few students finish high school prepared for further studies. “Academies,” therefore, is the Queen’s English translation for the American “charter schools,” and at least one of the academies that opened this year should sound familiar to observers of the “no excuses” brand of charters here in the States.
At Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, as in Achievement First and KIPP schools, students wear a formal uniform, learn to sit up straight and be respectful, and have classes until late in the afternoon, according to the Guardian’s profile of three of the 47 academies that opened this fall. Evelyn Grace is one of six British schools operated by Ark — an acronym that stands for “Absolute Return for Kids” — which touts a “no excuses” approach to academic achievement on its website. At the three Ark schools that were open last year, children had four periods of literacy and three periods of math each day with the long-term goal of “100 percent” success at preparing students for university entrance requirements.
This fall marked the largest single-year expansion of the academy initiative, and as the pace picks up the Guardian asks a once-familiar question that has largely vanished from the mainstream conversation stateside: “Isn’t there something faintly unsettling about very rich people setting the terms by which poor students are educated?” But it finds that Evelyn Grace parents embrace the school’s rigid discipline, with one saying, “The more boundaries the better.” And given the educational disparities that plague British schools — only 30 percent of 16-year-olds from the poorest quarter of families pass the five tests that comprise the minimum standard for school completion, compared to more than 70 percent of their most affluent age-mates — officials are willing to try anything that could work, particularly if it costs the government little in the way of new funds.
One big difference between Evelyn Grace and charter schools in the States: Evelyn Grace will soon move into a permanent, state-of-the-art facility designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, while American charters often have to scramble for space that isn’t even tailored to meet their needs.