Harlem Children’s Zone holds lessons for Labour

Oli de Botton has questioned the applicability of Harlem Children's Zone to the UK. But the preliminary results are incredible and UK schools need a broader role.

On LabourList yesterday, Left Foot Forward contributor Oli De Botton highlights the Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ is a project in New York that has been running since 1997 and covers a 100 block area in New York City. The brainchild of Geoff Canada, the project aims to provide an environment for education from birth to adult education. Today, the project serves over 8,000 children and 6,000 adults and is built on some very simple interventionist principles.

Oli says the “jury may still be out” on HCZ and asks whether we should be pursuing similar approaches in the UK. While the jury might still be out, the preliminary studies show incredible results. Professor Roland Fryer, the 32-year old economist at the head of Harvard’s Education Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs), recently published the first assessment of HCZ’s impact on outcomes. It showed that the project had managed to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics and reduce it by nearly half in English. He concludes that it is both the quality of the school and the investment into the community that creates the gains.

While I broadly agree with Oli’s assessment I disagree that the proposal should be divisive for Labour supporters simply because it takes private money and makes use of the US’ Charter School scheme (similar to our academies). The central argument is not one about private money or public money, it’s about levels of intervention and the role of schools. For one thing, the Charter School (Promise Academy) forms only one part of HCZ; much of the project addresses wider issues of social policy that have been identified as impacting one educational outcomes.

The principle is to solve them all through targeted interventions. The incredible gains have been brought about not just by attracting significant amounts of financial investment (though, this has undoubtedly helped), but also by convincing parents that school is the best option for their children and by providing adults with something as well, incuding programmes such as parenting classes at HCZ’s Baby College. In some of the most deprived areas of this country, there is still a battle to be fought to convince some people about the benefits of education (double digit persistent truancy rates speak volumes) and schools in the UK are yet to embrace the idea that they have something significant to offer adults and the rest of the community, in addition to educating children.

Geoff Canada’s success doesn’t rest solely on private money, it rests on his ability to see education and schools not only as a place children go during the day to learn, but as a vibrant centre of a community, with responsibilities towards all its members. This is a Labour and progressive vision and one that we should all endorse.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.