- K-12 Education
- Higher Education
- Who We Are
Many of the educational challenges facing the
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 (
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
ES: How did you become involved in education policy?
MB: I've been involved in education reform in
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
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
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—
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
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
ES: Why has
MB: The biggest problem in the
By contrast, I've recently been in
The other fundamental flaw that I think is absolutely devastating in the
The relative power of the teacher unions in the
ES: Why are the teacher unions in the
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
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
The final point is this, central government in this country is very powerful compared to local and school level government, but in
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
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
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
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