Geoffrey Canada: The Harlem Globetrotter who inspired Michael Gove

Having turned round the schools in one of New York's toughest areas, Geoffrey Canada tells Richard Garner how his ideas could make a difference in Britain too

Geoffrey Canada spent his childhood waiting for Superman to come and rescue him and his family from poverty. Told by his mother while still in the fourth grade at his school in the United States that Superman "is not real", he then developed the ambitious idea that it was up to him to save the planet – or, perhaps more modestly, at least rescue the ailing US education system. His story is told in the film Waiting for Superman, directed by David Guggenheim – of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth fame – and just released over here.

It gains more relevance for the UK because Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has used Mr Canada's achievements in Harlem, one of New York's bleakest neighbourhoods, as a blueprint for the "free" schools initiative being launched in England next year. Mr Gove says of Mr Canada's achievements: "Geoffrey Canada is a real life superhero. He has devoted his life to state education and to raising standards for the very poorest. His Harlem Children's Zone is a radical experiment in changing the way children are brought up.

"As a result of what he's done, children in the nursery schools, children in primary and children in secondary are educated to the highest standards with a no-excuses culture and tough discipline."

Mr Canada believes the UK has similar problems to the US and that it, too, needs the kind of sense of innovation he has brought to his charter schools in Harlem, New York, where he grew up, to put things right. Mr Gove concurs.

The story of how Mr Canada became one of the saviours of the education system in the US starts off with the Superman story.

"One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist," Mr Canada recalls. "I read comic books and just loved them because even in the depths of the ghetto you thought, 'He's coming, I just don't know when, because he always shows up and he saves all the good people'."

On hearing Superman would not be coming he cried. "She [his mother] thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real," he said. "I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us."

He quibbles with the film's title, though. "It was certainly not my decision," he said. "I was surprised they came up with the name.

"Davis Guggenheim was trying to get the point out that there is a sense of urgency that we face in the States and it won't happen if everybody just leaves it to somebody else. I think that's where the Superman idea comes in."

In a way, Michael Gove is waiting for a kind of Superman, too. His education reforms place great emphasis on giving heads and teachers a freer reign to teach what they like through the "free" schools.

To be fair, he would probably say he is not so much waiting for Superman but hoping to release him from the shackles of bureaucracy that currently constrain him.

As indicated, the "free" schools, 25 of which have been given the green light to open next year, are Mr Gove's vehicle for this. They will be able to ignore the national curriculum and set their own pay levels for their staff, which is similar to what Mr Canada is doing in the US.

After gaining his teaching qualification, he deliberately decided to set up his stall in one of the bleakest neighbourhoods in New York – choosing a district where the kids were two or three grade levels behind the average. Poverty, crime and troubled homes were blamed for their lack of achievement.

Now the achievements of the four schools he has set up outstrip those in the middle-class suburbs. Nine out of 10 of his students now go to college and graduate.

"They don't just do better than other poor schools," he said. "They do better than everyone." So what does he attribute the success to? Ironically, he singles out a school he went to as one of the reasons why he is where he is today. He did not spend much time there. "If I'd gone, I would not be here today," he said. "It was a failure factory."

In addition to the charter schools in Harlem, Mr Canada was also the founder and creator of the Harlem Children's Zone Project. It covers over 90 blocks of Harlem and involves workshops for parents of children aged between nought and three, as well as in-school, after-school, social service, health and community building programmes.

The youngsters spend longer days in schools and there is less holiday time. Mr Canada promises them: "We're not going to let you fail."

President Barack Obama has said of the programme that it is "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children". He has called for "promise neighbourhoods" to be set up all around the States based on the Harlem Children's Zone.

Mr Canada's other bête noire is the teachers' unions – which both he and the film blame for failings in public sector education. He believes a similar problem exists in the UK.

Specifically singled out in the US is the question of "tenure" – which, the film says, puts American teachers on a similar footing to academics in the UK who in the past, in the words of Michael Caine in the film, Educating Rita, could only be dismissed if they had "buggered the bursar".

Statistics show that – while one in 97 doctors has been dismissed over competency questions – the figure for teachers in the US is one in 2,500.

What relevance, then, do Mr Canada's reforms have for the British education system? In a throwaway line in the film, Guggenheim cites further statistics that show only one in five of the charter schools in the US are successful. As one teacher I talked to in the UK said: "If four out of five mainstream state schools failed, there would be an outcry."

Mr Canada accepts part of what the critics say: "Clearly, the charter school is not a panacea but it is an opportunity to adopt a different strategy and see if it works," he said.

"I would argue that the other [charter] schools should be closed."

However, he is keen to see the public [state] schools in the US adopt some of the most successful strategies exemplified at his schools. Washington and Denver already have. Asked to identify the key successful policies he has introduced, he replied: "I think clearly the evaluation of teachers – the ability to bring together the most talented teachers in the school." Watching great teaching, he says, is like looking at a work of art.

"Also, the longer day and the longer school year are important," he said. Pupils attend from 8am until 4pm with after-school activities attended by around 80 per cent of youngsters. The schools also keep going during July – the traditional holiday break in the US. "We do trips and stuff as well as teach," he said.

He also extols the Harlem Children's Zone's role in the wider community providing support to new parents, help with the social services and out-of-school fun activities for children. Mr Gove describes this work as the epitome of the Big Society.

However, after watching the film, Janet Cullen, headteacher of Lea Valley High School in Enfield, north London, said she thought that what the film had highlighted "bore very little resemblance to the education system in the UK that I've worked in over the last 30 years. Teachers' contracts are very different in the UK. We do move teachers on who don't perform to the level that we would expect."

James Turner, policy director of the Sutton Trust, the education charity which campaigns to gain more access for disadvantaged pupils to Britain's top performing universities, added: "It is difficult to see the charter schools as a solution. We know that these schools are a bit of a mixed bag. The key is to learn from those which show good practice."

These views were challenged by Toby Young, the writer and broadcaster who is planning to set up a "free" school in Acton, west London, based on traditional lines with a heavy emphasis on teaching Latin, who said that failure to sack teachers was "exactly the same problem that we have here. How can you say that what you've seen does not apply to us?" he asked.

"What actually changes pupils' lives more than anything is their self-esteem," replied Ms Cullen. "Certainly, in the schools I've worked in I have seen lots of incompetent teachers move out of the profession."

The jury is, of course, out at the moment on whether Geoffrey Canada is the kind of Superman that the UK education system needs to help it raise standards. What is certain, though, is that we will find out over the next few years as his ideas are copied in our state sector.

A life in brief

* Born: 13 January 1952 in Harlem, New York.

* Early life: His father suffered from alcoholism and his mother eventually left to bring up Geoffrey and his three brothers on her own.

She tutored her sons, restricted their television watching, instilled them with values and took them on civil rights marches.

* Early career: Won a scholarship to college in Brunswick, Maine, after being sent to live with his grandparents in Freeport, New York, where he went to high school at the age of 15. Graduated with a degree in psychology and sociology in 1974 and entered the Harvard Graduate School of Education, gaining a Master's degree.

Became a teacher at Robert White school in Boston, an alternative school for troubled youngsters, where he became director in 1977.

* Later life: Became director of a truancy prevention programme in Harlem in 1983 and opened his first martial arts school later that year. Launched the Harlem Children's Zone, which includes his charter schools, in the early 1990s.

Personal life: Married Joyce Henderson in the early 1970s, with whom he had a son, Jerry. They are now divorced. Later married Yvonne Grant, with whom he has five children.

* He says: "We're not going to let you fail."

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