Earlier this week, I was part of a panel on Newsnight Scotland discussing the latest – some would say, belated – efforts designed to improve Glasgow’s dismally underachieving state schools.

That they need improvement is beyond doubt. In Scotland’s largest city, only 7% of state-educated pupils leave school with five good Higher passes. In Scotland as a whole a mere 220 children from the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods achieved three As at Higher (the minimum grades required for admission to leading universities such as St Andrews). As I said on the programme, this should be considered a national scandal. More than that, a disgrace. (Like Fraser, I wish more people were angry about these things.)

To be fair, Glasgow City Council is trying. It may have taken 30 years of complacency, neglect and failure to persuade Councillors that something – anything! – had to be done. But there are small signs of progress. Stephen Curran, the Labour councillor in charge of the city’s education system, pointed out that more than 95% of recent leavers from Castlemilk High School left for a job, an apprenticeship or a place at college. This is progress even if, as he acknowledged, not all of it shows up on league tables measuring pure academic success. But it is a start.

Even so Gordon Brewer, Newsnight’s presenter, wanted to know why Glasgow wasn’t copying some of the efforts made to improve London’s schools. A reasonable question, even if their positions are not wholly comparable. But to say they are not wholly comparable is not to suggest there are no sensible comparisons that may be made.

I think the Adonis-Gove agenda in England does have many lessons for a Scottish educational establishment that, until recently, has been longer on self-satisfaction than educational achievement. Even so, it would be silly to suppose that the Adonis-Gove way is the only way. (For what it’s worth, I think Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence has many promising components. It should inspire good teachers even if it also defeats poor ones.)

Scottish schools (like English schools) are not, by international standards, appalling but nor are they as good as they could or should be, far less quite as good as we think they are. And they are especially bad at educating our poorest children. The leading universities would love to admit more students from deprived backgrounds; the trouble is they can’t find them.

But even if one admires the Academies and Free Schools approach, one should be aware it is unlikely to prove replicable everywhere. It is, chiefly, an approach designed for major urban areas in which competition can flower. School choice is not likely to be as useful in small towns or rural areas lacking the population density that makes competition a practical incentive to improvement.

Journalists, politicians and academics have a habit of focusing on systems more than people. This is not unreasonable: politicians and bureaucrats can tweak systems or introduce new structures in the hope these will have the desired effect. This is within their control; it shows they are doing something. But while systems, structures and school governance matter, they are less important than culture. Academies and Free Schools may be useful in and of themselves but their chief merit is changing culture.

It is a question of raising expectations and standards, demanding more from pupils, parents and, yes, teachers too. Setting schools free can be a good start but it is only a start. Any honest teacher will tell you of staff rooms stuffed with clapped-out, burnt-out, tired teachers who no longer believe in their mission. Low expectations – which is a way of blaming the kids – are cancerous. Everyone knows some schools are more “challenging” than others; these are the schools that need the best, the brightest, the most energetic and passionate teachers. Instead, too often, the “system” grinds teachers down. Reduced expectations beget reduced results which in turn lower expectations, standards and results still further.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As it happens, I’ve been reading Mark Binelli’s The Last Days of Detroit, a chilling, even grotesque, account of the ruin of a once-great American city. This is a city $9bn in debt (excluding pension liabilities) in which debt-interest accounts for 22% of the city’s budget. A city with 78,000 abandoned properties and, at any given time, just 14 working ambulances. A city in which only 39 of 344 murders were solved in 2011 and where, if you call the cops, they may turn up an hour later. 40% of streetlights don’t work. Per capita income amongst the 700,000 still stranded in Detroit, is a mere $15, 261 a year. The scale of Detroit’s collapse is mind-boggling. It is not, to put it mildly, a place ripe for educational achievement.

And yet, even here, there are pockets of hope and inspiration. One such is the Catherine Ferguson Academy*. By Binelli’s account, this may be one of the most remarkable schools in the whole of the United States of America. 90% of pupils at the Catherine Ferguson Academy receive a high school diploma. Gaining at least one acceptance letter from college is a condition of graduating from Catherine Ferguson Academy. This record, in the heart of the America’s worst, most hopeless, desolate, city is remarkable. It seems extraordinary when you consider the pupils at Catherine Ferguson Academy.

Because each and every single pupil there is a pregnant girl or teenage mother.

According to Binelli, the school has “built such a sterling reputation that students had actually been caught lying to gain admission, borrowing infants to pass off as their own or swapping out their urine with a pregnant friend’s so as to produce a positive test.”

And here’s the thing:

“I asked [Asenath Andrews, the school principal] how she managed such an unheard-of college acceptance rate for a public high school. Andrews fixed me with a look and said, matter-of-factly, ‘I expect it’

I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. I said, ‘How is that not an overly simple answer? All of the special challenges…”

She cut me off and asked, ‘Did you go to college right out of high school?’

I said yes. 

She said, ‘How come?’

This time I didn’t answer. Of course, she had a point. 

‘You do things because that’s what you must do,’ she said. [...] ‘These girls know they’re important to me. Women do things for a lot of reasons. Most of them not for themselves. So you can use that for your own purposes.’ 

Binelli speaks to one young mother/pupil who tells him “I don’t mean to sound like one of those parents who say ‘As soon as you have a child, everything will change’. But as soon as you have a child….’ [...] ‘I just knew I had to go to college. I didn’t grow up dirt poor. But I want Nicole to have a better life than me. All this stuff?’ She rubbed her dirty gloved hands together meaning the [school's urban] farm. ‘I don’t really care about this stuff. But you do learn to take pride in your work. Students built this whole farm. Pregnant girls did this.’

Leadership. Standards. Culture. No excuses. The essential ingredients for a successful school, whether it’s in burnt-out Detroit or anywhere else. The point of this illustration is not that the Catherine Andrews Academy is an example that can be replicated, far less a local success story that can be scaled up to state or even national levels. That’s not the point at all. In fact, the point runs in the opposite direction. It is that this is a unique story, an individual triumph against the odds that can’t be easily or usefully copied elsewhere.

Because it’s about the people running the school, not the systems of structures or governance (far less the city council). There’s no reason why city governments or local authorities can’t run successful school systems (there are plenty that do) but they can’t do so if they fail to empower the right kinds of people. Set the people free and they can achieve great things.

But the biggest, most important, lesson to be drawn from the Catherine Andrews Academy in Detroit is that if a school for teenage mothers can make it in Detroit, there’s not a community anywhere in the United Kingdom that can’t have a successful school as well. Circumstances differ; inspiration is universal. It can be done.

The question is whether we have the determination, the willpower and the people do get it done. Systems and structures and a new curriculum are fine, but they are useful chiefly as the means by which people are freed and new people are attracted into our schools.

Glasgow is trying (desperation can prove a powerful stimulus) but more, much more, still needs to be done before we have reason to stop being enraged by the failure of too many schools and the blight this casts on so many young lives. Because the cost of failure is measured in lost opportunities and squandered futures. It betrays our children and, worse still, most fully cheats those whose need is greatest. It should shame us all.

*In 2011, the City of Detroit tried to close Catherine Andrews Academy. Only a hard-fought campaign won the school a reprieve.

Tags: Americana, british politics, Detroit, Education, Free schools, Glasgow, Michael Gove, Scotland