Barber rounds on political playground

Education has become the new playground for politicians, said Michael Barber, professor of education, in his inaugural lecture at London University's Institute of Education.

Professor Barber believes that if standards are to improve a future government must build on cross-party consensus, and the position of education secretary must be elevated to a major government post.

There is a new consensus in education, he said. National curriculum, testing at the end of key stages, national inspection, intervention in cases of failure and the publication of performance data are no longer matters for political debate.

Therefore education should rise above yah-boo politics and an incoming prime minister must build on inter-party agreement. "(That) would establish the longer time horizons on which effective, serious reform depends," he said.

Conceding that this may be unrealistic, Professor Barber says an incoming government must also avoid the internal political rivalries that have dogged Conservative education policy. The Department for Education and Employment would have to resist or take on unwelcome reforms foisted by flavour-of-the-month think tanks and the Downing Street policy unit.

Professor Barber said that while Labour's Tony Blair and David Blunkett, his shadow education secretary, have enjoyed good relations in opposition, they must work to avoid conflict within government.

Professor Barber's subject matter will not surprise those who know him He is a political animal. He headed the National Union of Teachers' education department, an organisation almost unrivalled in its Byzantine politics, and was chair of Hackney council's education committee.

Since moving to academia he has become an influential adviser to Tony Blair, was appointed by David Blunkett to lead the Labour party's Literacy Task Force, is a member of the DFEE's consultative group on school improvement and has undertaken research projects for the Government.

Professor Barber has earned a reputation as an ideas man as his tautological title of dean of new initiatives suggests. And politicians and policy-makers will always listen to people who bring them ideas.

The lecture, drawing on an eclectic range of sources, from Francis Fukuyama and Count Otto von Bismarck to The Sun, addressed a forthcoming Government, nominally a Labour-led one. However, he says, its recommendations would apply equally to a new Conservative administration.

His thesis is that as a modern-day government's power over macro-economic policy has waned, so its control of education has grown dramatically.

"Here is a policy area where 93 per cent of the users are in the state-controlled sector and where policy is virtually untrammelled by European regulation or as yet by global markets. Small wonder our politicians have begun to give it a priority. They have found a new playground."

It is not just that idle hands have been able to do the devil's work. According to Professor Barber, governments have decided that local authorities have failed to deliver.

He said: "While some have been excellent and many are still full of good practice, the provision of education has been patchy and in many cases not good enough."

He proposes that the position of Education and Employment Secretary must be elevated to a similar rank to the Foreign Secretary. This would make it more likely that incumbents would stay there for a number of years to see through their policies. While its profile has increased in recent years, the education job was often characterised as a place for ministers on their way up, or on their way down.

A long-term holder, he suggests, would not be tempted into precipitous legislation and would have to see policy decisions through to their conclusion.

Recent education legislation has vastly increased the power of the Secretary of State, but has also created several quangos to implement the Government's policies. In practice, conflicts and rivalries have been seen to arise between these agencies and their leaders in the Teacher Training Agency, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education.

Further conflicts have arisen between the quangos and the DFEE. Professor Barber believes it is vital that the choice of the heads of these must not be seen as political patronage.

He suggests a cross-party approach, for example appointments being made by the education select committee. He also suggests that any minutes of meetings between these agencies and the DFEE should be made public, in the same manner as the Chancellor's talks with the governor of the Bank of England.

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