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Mike Baker
"The Henry Ford Academy is a novel concept."
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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 17:46 GMT
City academy, US-style
pupils with presidential car
History surrounds Henry Ford Academy students
By BBC Education Correspondent Mike Baker

The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has announced a radical relaunch of the government's "fresh start" policy for failing schools in England.

He is trying to give it a new boost by creating new types of inner city schools, involving business and community partners.
students in lab
Learning is very hands-on
It is an idea which borrows heavily from the charter school movement in the United States.

At the Henry Ford Museum, located near the Ford Motor Company factories in Detroit, there is a unique museum - the product of the idiosyncratic ideas of Henry Ford himself, who brought to one site the major landmarks of American invention, enterprise and industry.

But even more fascinating than the museum is the school that operates inside it.

Students at the Henry Ford Academy mingle freely with museum exhibits, taking science classes - for example - in Thomas Edison's reconstructed laboratory. It is a hands-on education.

Hands on

The Academy's principal, Cora Christmas, says it is a huge educational benefit.

"We know that if you want to teach a kid how to sail you don't let them read a book about sailing, you put them on a boat and let them go learn how to sail," she said.
pupils in historic setting
Students also work in the museum
"So that's really what we're doing with a lot of our subjects: we put students in those kinds of settings.

"There was a math lesson a couple of weeks ago where the students were doing ratios and they were using pulleys to do that.

"Well we have pulleys all over this museum. So kids were actually able to go there and see how pulleys actually work."

No fees

The Henry Ford Academy is a novel concept - one very similar to Labour's plans for new inner city schools.

It is the first American high school developed, and run, jointly by a global corporation, an education authority and a non-profit cultural institution.

Its students are from inner city Detroit and pay no fees. Although Ford put in startup money the running costs are met largely by the taxpayer.

Its philosophy is to make school seem relevant to the students. It does this by modelling teaching and learning on methods used in the workplace.

Ford employees help in the school and students take work placements within the museum.

The whole approach is based on team-work and problem-solving: key concepts used in business and industry.

Relating to reality

The Dean of Students, Larry Holliday, said the idea was to relate what the students were learning to what was happening in the world outside.

"We may teach them a concept in the classroom. We may then have them do something with that concept. And subsequently we bring in people to say: 'What you just learned, what you just did, I earn money doing'."

As the museum's exhibit on the car industry shows, adaptability and innovation is the key to keeping ahead not only in business but also in education.

The Ford Academy has a focus on technology, students present their work on PowerPoint and work collaboratively on design projects. It is not narrowly vocational but is about preparing students for the world of work.

Involving outside partners from the business and community is designed to reinvigorate schools.

'We could do this anywhere'

Cora Christmas thinks the Ford design could work with other partners and other settings - anywhere has businesses, libraries, other museums to which students could be attached.
pupils using laptop
The school is popular with students
"We could do this on the floor of Congress. We could do this on Wall Street. We could do this in a hospital," she said.

"There's all kinds of resources in every community that you can draw on. What I think we've done is take that idea of partnership to a different level."

The Henry Ford Academy is perhaps the most innovative of a wider form of new schools in the United States.

Charter schools, as they are called, involve private sector and community groups running schools under a contract, or charter, with public bodies.


According to Professor Gary Sykes of Michigan State University it is a new way of running schools:

"Public school academies do represent an innovative and important approach to management and governance issues," he said.

"They're free of management by district and school boards. So the governance structure of the schools itself is, by definition, an innovation in public education.

"They respond directly to market accountability. They are under pressures to attract students if they want to survive.

"That's a new form of accountability in American public education."

Now it seems this American innovation could be imported to Britain's inner cities.

The analogy with the American car industry is irresistible ... just as Ford had to adapt to survive the threat from Japanese firms like Honda, so the Labour government believes failing schools must be reinvigorated by involving new partners in running education.

  • Photos: Henry Ford Academy.

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    15 Mar 00 | Education
    Anger at scheme for failing schools
    15 Mar 00 | Correspondents
    Labour's bold borrowed ideas
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