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Not just jumping through hoops: Students at a KIPP charter school in Houston, where reading standards well exceed national averages (Pat Sullivan/AP) 

At an ordinary school, sitting and watching a Christmas production is not often an appealing prospect. As Sartre probably should have put it, Hell is other people's children in nativity plays. But we weren't sitting in an ordinary school. By the time a group of outrageously talented ten-year-olds from the Bronx in New York had rapped and joked their way through a production worthy of Broadway, nobody doubted their closing number's assertion that "there ain't no stopping us now", or the journalist Jay Townsend's view that this was one of "the most promising schools in America". 

That school, KIPP Academy, is part of the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), a network of 109 charter schools (publicly-funded schools free from the local school district's control) which has transformed education for students from poorer families across the United States. Charter schools have had a mixed record in some states, but KIPP's remarkable schools, with 85 per cent of their pupils on free or subsidised meals, have proved, once and for all, that poorer pupils fail in education not because they have inferior talent, or even because they grow up in inferior socioeconomic environments, but because they attend inferior schools. Instead, however, of uniting the country behind the challenge of raising school standards for the poorest, the success of KIPP and other charter schools has ignited a ferocious battle for the soul of American education. 

At KIPP Academy, situated in one of America's poorest school districts, 75 per cent of pupils achieve above the national average in maths and reading. This educational alchemy is repeated across America, as KIPP schools from Houston (where more than 97 per cent of eighth-graders passed their state reading and maths exams in 2009) to Colorado (where the Sunshine Academy in an impoverished neighbourhood is a state centre of excellence) achieve outstanding results in communities where schools had failed for generations. Only 41 per cent of pupils from the poorest quartile of families go to college in America, a fact which epitomises stagnant social mobility. Among KIPP pupils it is 85 per cent. 

At least at presidential level, the necessity of school reform is one of the few things Republicans and Democrats can agree on. George W. Bush made charters central to his "No child left behind" bill. Barack Obama introduced a "Race to the top" programme that explicitly linked state funding to removing the barriers to charter schools. KIPP has received the backing of high-profile figures, including the founders of The Gap, Doris and the late Don Fisher (who have given around $65 million over the last decade), and Bill and Melinda Gates, who pledged $10 million to the chain two years ago through the Gates Foundation that only funds projects which have demonstrated their effectiveness.

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