Education Reform Lessons from England

An Interview with Sir Michael Barber

Commentary | | January 26, 2006
K-12 Education

England's education system has undergone rapid and ambitious reform in the past decade. In 1997, a newly-elected Labour government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, enacted a series of major, centrally-driven education reforms, including national strategies to improve student learning in literacy and math in early elementary school, efforts to turn around failing schools, and teacher training and pay reforms. These reforms have produced impressive results: By 2000, only three years after Labour began its reforms, the lowest performing school districts in reading were outperforming the average in 1997.

Many of the educational challenges facing the United States today—poor performance relative to other developed nations on international assessments, the need to turn around low-performing schools, and the challenges of educating an increasingly diverse population—are similar to those England's education reforms have successfully tackled. As a result, we have much to learn from the English school reform experience.

Sir Michael Barber was one of the lead architects of this education reform strategy.  He played a key role in writing Labour's education policy agenda prior to the 1997 election and then led its implementation as head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit of the Department for Education and Skills (England's equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education). In 2001, following the reelection of the Labour government, Barber moved to 10 Downing Street (England's White House), where he led the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, which sought to apply the principles of England's successful school reforms across a wide range of public services.

In July 2005, Barber left government to join the consulting firm McKinsey and Company.  Education Sector senior policy analyst Sara Mead sat down with him at McKinsey's London office on December 2, 2005.

ES: How did you become involved in education policy?

MB:  I've been involved in education reform in England since the mid-1980s. I was a teacher until 1985, and from 1983 to 1985 I taught in southern Africa.  When I came back to England I happened to get a job with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and I ended up working for them for 8 years, the last 4 leading their policy work on education strategy.

At the time the Conservative government in this country—the Thatcher and then the Major governments—were introducing a whole series of very radical reforms.  I began to see the value in some of those Conservative reforms rather than just being blindly hostile to them, which was the normal union position at that time.  I think one of the best things Blair did was design his education reform to build on the important Conservative reforms. So we've had 18 years of reform with a series of consistent threads: devolution of resources, strong accountability, setting standards, national tests and introduction of school inspection.

Ironically, I helped organize and lead a boycott of the national test in 1993, not because I was against testing in principle, but because the controversial policy had been so poorly implemented.  I was the spokesperson for all of the teachers unions in England in negotiations with the government, and we got a lot of concessions in the way the national curriculum and tests were organized.  Then I was in favor of national tests, because the boycott had done its job. But when the NUT wanted to carry on opposing the tests I felt disillusioned, so I left, and I became a professor in two different universities.

During that time I wrote books and lots of articles. I was relatively well-known as an education professor because I did much more journalism than most professors would do, and I also did a lot of speaking at conferences.  I had a vision of how education should be that I then put all together in one book, The Learning Game.

Starting in January 1995 I worked with Tony Blair's adviser, David Miliband, and with David Blunkett, who was the education spokesperson for Labour, and with three or four other people, in designing what became New Labour's education policies, in particular the national literacy strategy.

And then on the first of May 1997, after Labour won the election, Tony Blair and David Blunkett said to me in effect, “Well now we've won the election, and you've written the policy, and we'd love to have you come and make it happen.” So I became the head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit and chief advisor to the Secretary of State for School Standards, and my responsibility was to manage the implementation of New Labour's school reforms.

New Labour Education Reforms

ES: Describe New Labour's education agenda.

MB:  If you cut the New Labour education reform into three slices you could say the first was about standards and accountability.  The second was about collaboration and capacity-building (securing the supply of teachers, improving teachers' pay, creating opportunities for schools to collaborate, investing in professional development, building capacity in the system, etc.).  And the third is about market-based or quasi-market reform.  And I think that's a reasonable sequence actually.  Blair summarizes the approach as “Investment for Reform.”

So from 1997 to 1999 we went at this first phase with enormous energy and drove reform with great speed. It was a completely mission-driven agenda.  We implemented a national literacy strategy in primary schools, followed quite rapidly by numeracy using the same model: Large-scale reform driven from the top down; designing all the materials at the national level and training everybody in a cascade out; using the accountability system to publish results and school inspection to check that people were adopting better practices.

We also had a very tough agenda for dealing with under-performing schools: closing some, starting some fresh, and turning around others.  We began intervening in very troubled local educational authorities—Liverpool, parts of London, about 12 or 13 interventions altogether. It was very difficult to do but important.

The basic premise of our first phase of education reforms was that in order to achieve a certain minimum floor you have to first set those standards top down and drive them centrally.  I think that was right and the results were impressive, but you can't keep doing that forever. You have to move on.

ES:  And some of the new proposals Blair and the Department for Education and Skills have put forward more recently, to increase school choice and provide instruction more personalized to children's unique needs. Is this the third stage?

MB: Yes. Between 2001 and 2005 what Blair increasingly hankered after was a way of improving the education system that didn't need to be constantly driven by government. He wanted to develop self-sustaining, self-improving systems, and that led him to look into how to change not just the standards and the quality of teaching, but the structures and incentives. Essentially it's about creating different forms of a quasi-market in public services, exploiting the power of choice, competition, transparency and incentives, and that's really where the education debate is going now.

I think that the concept that you devolve money to schools, you encourage choice, you make it easier for new providers to come in as some U.S. charter laws do, and you make it easier for networks of schools to develop brands—all of that is conceptually sound.

At the political level Blair really understands the challenge.  Top-down reform, as I know from personal experience, is not an easy thing to do.  But quasi-market reform is more sophisticated strategically.  The individuals leading and implementing such changes will need to rise to this challenge and ensure that the reforms enhance equity. Since the status quo is inequitable there is every reason to believe that extending choice to everyone should produce greater equity.

At the political level Blair really understands this challenge, but it is highly controversial—within the Labour Party and nationally.

Challenges of Reform

ES:  What have been the biggest challenges of reform?

MB:  The implementation challenges have to do with scale and speed. A lot of government programs start off with a good idea, but as they go through the bureaucracy and out into the system, compromises are made, and by the time it gets to the actual frontline, it is so watered down that it doesn't work.  Then the frontline tells you the idea was bad when, actually, there was nothing wrong with the idea, just the implementation. You need to be very conscious of what you're doing and how you're doing it, and you need to design mechanisms to make sure that the program is faithfully implemented.

And then you have to be very clear what's non-negotiable, and be absolutely unapologetic.  If you decide to publish school league tables, as we have done, then you shouldn't apologize for them, you shouldn't say they are a necessary evil, you should say they are a positive good.

ES: What about political challenges?

MB: In the UK, nobody believes it if test scores go up. There's a very, very strong strand—particularly on the right wing of politics, but also in the teaching profession itself—of people who believe that in the end the amount of achievement in the population is a zero sum, so if test scores go up that can only mean you've lowered the standard.  We have that debate every single year when test scores come out.  That is a huge political challenge because what it means is there's an undertow of cynicism.  And yet, if you're in a classroom, you can see it happening, you can see that the child has learned more and the test is just reflecting what a child can do.

The second big political challenge is: How do you do rapid, large scale reform with sharp accountability?   A lot of people within the system say we went too far too fast and should have made more effort to get buy-in.  I personally don't believe that.  We had to demonstrate that you could do large-scale, system-wide reform quickly.  But that doesn't make it any less of a political challenge.

Probably the most difficult political challenge, though, is just how hard it is to stay the course when the going gets tough.  Most big reforms take eight or 10 years. You can make an impact in three to four, as we did, but to really transform a system it's going to be eight or 10 years.  How you stay the course—not just through changes of party but also with ministerial turnover in one party—is a real issue.

Comparing School Reform in England and the U.S.

ES:  Why has England been able to make so much more progress than the U.S. on education reform?

MB:  The biggest problem in the U.S. is how you get reform to scale.  The U.S. is full of fabulous boutique projects, but in a sea of underperforming systems.  In England, because we don't have federal-state separation or the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, if you've got the design right you can have a big impact.  And Labour in 1997 had a big majority, so it demonstrated you could do reform at scale very quickly.

By contrast, I've recently been in California, which is almost the same size as England in school population, and was struck by the impossibility of doing anything remotely coherent when you've got a state commissioner of education directly elected, a governor directly elected separately, a legislature with a different set of views, and then some powerful mayors. It's not anyone's fault—there are some brilliant education reformers around the U.S., including in California—but to do anything coherent in a context like that is so much more difficult.

The other fundamental flaw that I think is absolutely devastating in the U.S. is that because so much of the school system depends on very local taxation, the distribution of funding is inequitable. You can see how it originates in 19th century American history, but it is a big problem.  Even the best education laws are only leveling up to the same funding per pupil so that high-poverty areas have funding on par with other communities.  Whereas, in any sensible system you'd spend more money per pupil in a high-poverty area than another area. The Conservatives [in Britain] were in power from 1979 to 1997, and they never questioned that. They always thought it was absolutely right to spend more on areas of high poverty than other areas.

The relative power of the teacher unions in the U.S. compared to England is much greater, and that is also a challenge, to put it mildly.

Teacher Unions

ES:  Why are the teacher unions in the U.S. much more powerful than they in England?

MB:  Here there are six unions and they are very focused on the competition among themselves for members. With American unions, once the members have voted in an area, they all join one union, and that union becomes a monopoly, which is obviously a more powerful position.

Also, if you're in government in the U.K., you have to be particularly obtuse to have all six of our teachers unions opposing you at any given moment. Perhaps the same applies in reverse in the U.S., to unite the Governor, the schools commissioner, the whole legislature and the school boards against you, you have to be a particularly crass union!

Second, the amount of money American unions raise is much greater. Their financial clout is enormous.  I may be wrong, but I don't think a teacher union here has ever advertised on television.  But we've just seen how the Governor of California can be, at least in significant part, defeated by teacher union television advertising.  And when I think that there's not just television advertising but that teacher unions in America are often funding election campaigns, they're clearly buying something in return. That's not even remotely on the spectrum here.  It just doesn't happen.

The final point is this, central government in this country is very powerful compared to local and school level government, but in America the federal government's influence on the school system is relatively limited, and the strongest influences at the national level are the unions.

No Child Left Behind

ES:  What do you think about the No Child Left Behind Act?

MB:  I think, in conception, the NCLB Act—the idea that by 2014 you are going to bring everybody up to standards and thus really drive equity, and this concept of adequate yearly progress—is an outstanding piece of legislation, possibly the best piece of education legislation in American history. It's historic that a Republican president and a Republican Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support the most equitable, in concept, piece of legislation in American history.  But I think that one problem running to the next Presidential election is that people will decide that the NCLB act isn't going to work, and should be compromised.  That would be a pity.

On the other hand, some aspects of the law's implementation are really problematic.  One problem is that some of the tests that are being used are of poor quality.  Second, the parts of the legislation about teachers and capacity-building and getting the best teachers into the most challenging schools aren't gaining sufficient attention.  And the third problem is that as the NCLB act remorselessly unfolds there are going to be interventions in school districts, and I don't yet see in most states the capacity to do that in a really sophisticated way.  It's what I was saying before—if the implementation is poor, people will say the whole act was a bad idea and the true opportunity it provides will be lost.  If that happened, it would be lost for a generation, and America can't afford that.  I think that's the biggest risk to the American system in the next two to three years.  Even if you could get three or four states to do it really well, that might be enough to carry it through.  At the moment that's still in the balance.

ES:  On the last point about intervening in low performing schools: I know a lot of states are desperate to know how to do it.  Are there lessons for the U.S. from your experience?

MB:  One is you have to be clear when you intervene what you are attacking.  If you intervene in a school district that is badly managed, then you don't want to make it a generalized attack on every teacher and every community. For example, when we did an intervention in a local authority, the Minister and I would go to the school district and we'd get all the head teachers [principals] in one room and say, “This is not an attack on the head teachers in Leeds or Liverpool. You, the principals of the schools in this area, have an important challenge to rise to, which is achieving higher standards for all your children and what this report says is the school district isn't giving you the tools, support, and capacity to do your job that we know you want to do and we want you to do.  And so our job is to sort out the school district so you can do your job better.  And we're not going away until the problem is solved.”  Now that's a very different thing from saying, “You are all rubbish,” which is how it feels if you just publish the report and keep out of the way.

And then whenever those interventions got underway I would then go to that place maybe once a month and visit schools and talk to head teachers. I would ask:  “How is it going?  What do you feel about it?  Are we sticking by our commitment to you?  Do you feel the change happening in the way you want it to?” That's really, tactically and morally, absolutely basic.  We didn't do that for the first one, but then we realized you have to do it.  There are things that come out of the experience, nothing to do with the way the law's constructed.  How you construct the emotion around these things is enormously important.

Comparing Education and Other Policy Areas

ES:  Since you've worked in other policy areas, what do you see as differences between those areas and education?

MB:  The biggest difference between health and education is in the use of financial incentives.  In health if you want to get doctors or consultants or even nurses to do something, the best way is to use financial incentives.  By contrast, if you even mention financial incentives in schools, teachers say that's terrible, divisive. So the idea that you reward performance or delivery of an outcome in education is completely an anathema to the culture.  I don't know what the history of that is, but the cultures are quite different in the way they think about financial incentives.

There are also differences in the data that's available and used to measure performance. In education we're nearer to measuring the real outcome.  In health we've been largely measuring waiting times.  We do measure some targets related to mortality rates, but this year's mortality rates are affected by policies 10 years ago or five years ago, so the connection is quite distant. In education we're measuring real outcomes: children reading for example. So there's a difference there.

When you go into quasi-markets, that's another big difference between the two. The health market is much more flexible: It's perfectly plausible for someone to have a knee operation in one hospital and the other knee somewhere else.  You might only be in for a day or two days, so you've really got choice each time you want something done. Whereas a parent choosing a school for a child can't then go somewhere else next week. It's a much less flexible market, so you have to think quite differently about how you construct the markets.

That's why I've never believed the argument that some advocates make, particularly in the U.S., that choice alone is the answer.  I do believe it's part of the answer, but on it's own I don't think it's going to have sufficient impact. That's why I think you have to have all three strands I talked about: standards and accountability, collaboration and capacity building, and quasi-markets. The best reforms will combine all of those three things together.

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