Let's learn the Manhattan lesson

America differs from Britain in that it allows schools to innovate. Phil Willis, of the Liberal Democrats, says that we could benefit by doing the same thing
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The Independent Online

The re-opening of New York's High School of Economics and Finance on 28 February was more than a symbolic gesture. Situated in the heart of Manhattan less than 100 metres from the site of the former World Trade Centre, the last time the 600 students attended class here was on 11 September 2001.

Dr Patrick Burke, looking out from his 10th-floor office at the continuing work to clear ground zero, understated the school community's heroics on what New Yorkers call "9-11". His role, amid the chaos of a building infected by smoke, debris and lack of maintenance was to get his students back on track.

I was visiting New York and Washington to compare the approach of the Bush administration towards educational opportunities for failing communities and that of Tony Blair. There are strong similarities. Both administrations have introduced "revolutionary" reforms of secondary education through heavily promoted Education Bills. Each makes exaggerated claims for their vision. Even the rhetoric is alike – indeed I wondered whether Alastair Campbell was moonlighting on the other side of the Atlantic when Congressman Dale Kildee talked of "no child left behind" and a reform plan that would give "accountability and testing", "flexibility and local control", "funding for what works" and "expanded parental options".

Like New Labour in 1997, President Bush has made education his priority and though federal influence on education remains at best aspirational, there is a feeling that greater governmental involvement in education is inevitable.

The challenges facing US and UK schools are almost identical. Despite huge increases in funding over the past 35 years ($130bn from federal government alone) the gap in student achievement in the United States between rich and poor, disadvantaged and affluent, white indigenous and ethnic immigrant, has widened dramatically. US children fall short of their OECD peers in maths, reading and science, with African-American and Hispanic students continuing to trail behind.

The Bush reforms are, like their UK counterparts, targeting reading. Given that 70 per cent of inner-city 10-year-olds cannot read to a basic level, this is understandable. However, at secondary level the emphasis is on testing and diversity. Tax dollars can be applied to a variety of school settings with the exception of "faith schools", though even this defining principle is currently being tested in the courts. What is exciting about the American system is that schools are encouraged to be innovative. Though this can lead to a high level of failures, particularly among Charter Schools, it can lead to outstanding successes, too.

The High School of Economics and Finance was the equivalent of a "specialist school" in England but with some very important differences. Situated within a stone's throw of the Nasdaq stock market headquarters and Wall Street, this was a specialist school with a clear mission – "to expand learning opportunities beyond the classroom". This 14-19 high school had defined its own specialism. It did not choose economics and finance from a menu designed in Washington, but in consultation with its community of students and businesses.

In many ways this was a "vocational" school, yet its students are hardly your typical bankers and economists. These students, most of whom are black African-Americans or Hispanics, are not the most gifted and they are certainly not the most wealthy, yet they saw the school as providing an economic passport to university and beyond. Their achievements to date are quite remarkable; all experienced internships with local companies, many on Wall Street itself, and a significant proportion were engaged with host companies for part-time employment. The New York High School of Economics and Finance gave a refreshing insight into what a 14-19 school of the future could look like if only we could show faith in our school communities too.

The High School of Economics and Finance is situated at 100 Trinity Place, New York 10006

The writer is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Education