How to achieve the impossible

Michael Barber

Michael Barber offers rules for radical reformers who simultaneously seek to build public trust

Tony Blair says his three priorities in government will be "education, education and education". John Major says his are the same but perhaps in a different order. The Liberal Democrats have put education at the heart of their policy. Why have politicians across the spectrum become so interested in education in recent years?

Thirty years ago, governments set out to achieve their goals by pulling the macro-economic policy levers: interest rates, incomes policies, taxation levels. Since then, as Britain has become increasingly absorbed into the global market and the European Union, politicians have largely lost control of these levers. They can tinker with them but in the end the markets dictate. Anyone who believes government can operate independently of the markets needs only to remember Norman Lamont's drained expression on Black Wednesday in 1992.

Over the same 30 years, by contrast, politicians have gained control of all the education policy levers. The curriculum, testing, teacher supply, teacher training, inspection and funding are now in their hands. In short, for politicians, education is a new playground. To misquote Bill Clinton, it's no longer the economy, stupid, it's the learning!

This is not all. Increasingly politicians recognise that education has become centrally important to both our economic success and our social well-being. They are beginning to understand that the cultural context within which we learn, work, rest and play is crucial to the competitiveness of the economy.

As Francis Fukuyama argues in his magnificent book, Trust: "Culture exercises a direct influence on ... the economy ... a nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society".

It is this that explains the series of crises in this country over standards and morality as well as the political response to them.

The headlines may read "Bulger", "Dunblane", "The Ridings" or "Manton" but the issues at stake are trust, social capital, morality and economic growth. It is not that politicians have strayed across the border into the forbidden lands of priests, rabbis and imams: rather, the borders no longer exist.

If this is the case, then education policy is likely to remain at the heart of the political debate for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, if the purpose of education reform is not just to raise standards but to create a new culture based on trust, then the nature of the policy-making process itself needs re-thinking.

Before the mid-1980s, a substantial degree of trust was achieved, but only by postponing the difficult questions further and further into the future. Running away has never been a good long-term strategy. Since then, we have had pressure for change and some beneficial reform, but so often achieved at the expense of trust. The challenge for the next government is to walk the tightrope between promoting radical reform and constantly building trust.

If government is to achieve this impossible task, it will need a new approach to policy. This should obey the following rules.

Rule one: prioritise ruthlessly

One of the problems in the decade of reform behind us is that we have been on the receiving end of mixed messages, unsustained initiatives and, sometimes, confusion. Teachers, like every other work force, have learned that continuous change is inevitable, but they are surely entitled to expect clear and consistent messages about the central goals of policy.

A government ought to establish clear priorities and stick to them. If, for example, literacy standards are to be the priority, then decisions on initial teacher education, teachers' professional development, the nature of inspection, the content of the national curriculum, the form of tests and the character of home-school agreements all need to take that priority into account. Note that successful change does not necessarily require legislation.

There is a downside to prioritisation too. It requires ministers to face down some pressure groups, even where they have a legitimate case. The education service is littered with people who, to no one's benefit, have been marched half-way up hills and abandoned. No wonder our performance has never peaked.

Rule two: invest productively

Any government that is serious about educational progress will have to invest more than in recent years. Slow and steady growth - year on year over at least five years - would be much better than fast and fluctuating growth. The priority for growth must surely be the early years because avoiding education failure is preferable to dealing with its consequences. It is surely time, too, for greater recognition to be given to the fact that success in disadvantaged areas costs more.

Rule three: think strategically

The pressures for government to be short-termist are immense. Ministers, like football managers, have to make an immediate impact and they rarely stay in post long enough to have to live with their errors. Strategic thinking requires a new state of mind: a shared sense of direction; ministers who expect to be in for the long haul; and a new drive to encourage high quality research and development in education.

A new Education Research Council should be established. In addition to universities, consortia of schools and the various independent think-tanks and consultancy organisations should be encouraged to put proposals to it. This would provide healthy competition for those of us in academia and put a premium on research which offers possible solutions to problems of both policy and practice.

Rule four: learn constantly

Consultation is essential because it enables policy-makers to learn. If they do not learn their policies will fail, as John Patten discovered. Consultation thus pays double dividends, providing both legitimacy and learning.

But consultation on its own is not enough. Policy-makers need information direct from the front line as well as from representative organisations. Good news will always get through but bad news is often screened out because officials fear it will be seen as an admission of failure or that the messenger will be shot.

To remedy this, the Department for Education and Employment should consider the approach adopted successfully by political parties and businesses: the use of focus groups. These are much maligned, but problems only arise if their inevitably fleeting views are allowed to dictate policy, rather than to inform it. A good minister must seek to import criticism and export praise.

Rule five: collaborate effectively

Geoff Mulgan, the director of Demos, has argued that in the future, government should perceive itself as servant rather than master and that it should seek to shape and influence change but not necessarily manage it directly.

If this is the case, the government can only be effective if it collaborates with business, international agencies and educational organisations. In other words, government would achieve more if it stopped pretending it could do everything.

Above all, government and all of us have a responsibility to create a shared sense of urgency and purpose about raising standards. The right climate would enhance the potential for innovative partnerships. It would also make it easier to resolve the inevitable conflicts of interest.

As I write this, it sounds so naively optimistic to me that it seems impossible. Nevertheless, it has to be done. Perhaps we should remember what my maths teacher used to say: "The impossible we can do; miracles take a little longer."

Michael Barber is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London University and author of The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution (Gollancz, Pounds 12.99). This article is based on his inaugural lecture, 'How to do the impossible', which was delivered on Wednesday.

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