England & Wales Education and children's services

Never minds schools, it’s Barber who needs to learn the lessons of failure

photo via Guardian website

Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s former chief education advisor and new joiner at Edexcel, is profiled in yesterday’s Education Guardian. The picture on the front page sums up the man brilliantly: he’s wearing the sharp suit and crisp white shirt that’s standard issue for a top-drawer consultant, but with a couple of reassuringly school-teacherly touches (thick-soled, PC plod shoes and reading glasses on a lanyard).

Barber’s policies inspire contempt and admiration in equal measure. In the former camp, the heroic Simon Jenkins (as far as I can tell, the only journalist who still cares about England’s traditions of local government) describes him as the “control freak’s control freak”. The latter camp includes Michael Gove, who offered Barber a job at the education department. (The Guardian’s at pains to point out that neither side has a bad word to say about him personally).

One thing that everyone’s agreed on is that Barber has almost Messianic self-belief. It’s fairly widely agreed that top-down targets created perverse incentives that damaged education. Schools pushed less-able pupils towards soft qualifications that helped their performance in the league tables, but didn’t do much good for pupils. Research conducted by Edinburgh University has shown that Academies, another reform he championed, were the principle offender here.

Barber, however, sees no need to revise his views on top-down prescription. He tells the Guardian that top-down performance management was right in the first stage of reform, as bad schools need prescription. There’s something a little Groucho Marx about this (“if you don’t like my principles, I’ve got others”).

Personally, I don’t find Barber’s feint very compelling. Any system based on top-down, national performance management will result in schools doing odd things that aren’t right for the pupils and communities that they serve. What’s in fact required, particularly in the most challenging schools, is an educational approach that is totally tailored to the needs of its pupils. Indeed, that was the principal rationale for allowing Academies to follow a more flexible curriculum. That will only happen in a system that empowers local people, not national government, to challenge educational under-performance.

One option here is trusting, and investing in, the UK’s forgotten army of school governors. School governors are at the heart of local democracy – there are about 310,000 governors in the country’s 23,000 schools. The best of them bring much-needed skills from the commercial sector and are not in the pay of the education system. They can’t do much at the moment, however, as their powers are weak compared to those of headteachers and the Government.

It is, of course, unlikely that Barber would have much time for this argument. The decisions that people will make, and their results, can’t easily be predicted by flow charts, scatter graphs and decision trees. Personally, however, I think it’s high-time that Barber revised his views. Back in 1995, he argued that “serious debate of failure” is a “precondition of success”. Perhaps it’s time he took a look at his own legacy.