The next horizon: imagining an end to failure in education

On a cutting-edge photocopier somewhere in London, Michael Barber found the following memo from 10 years in the future. Could this vision really make us the envy of the world?


TO: The Finnish Education Minister

FROM: The Secretary of State for Education, England

DATE:March 20, 2017

SUBJECT: Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) introduction

1. Thank you for your congratulations and your enquiry. To discover, in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-PISA report published a couple of months ago, that we are now the world leader in literacy, second in science and third in maths (a position long held by Finland, of course!) was indeed a welcome surprise.

2. Success factors? In a single sentence, I would say this: we got serious about equity. But let me explain.

the turning point

3. In 2005-06, our increasingly good individual pupil-level data revealed that even if all schools improved, many individuals and some groups - Turkish boys, for example - were left behind.

4. At that time there was a lot of talk about personalisation but, except in a few outstanding schools, it was only talk. In 2007, we decided to give a hard-headed definition to the term:

"Personalisation is fully embedded in a system when each teacher asks each day about each student he or she teaches; what will it take to get him or her up to the next level as rapidly as possible?"

5. Then we set 10-year goals (for 2017).

i. No young person should leave full or part-time education before the age of 18 without achieving at least a level 2 qualification.

ii. Every child should leave primary school able to read and write well and competent in all basic elements of numeracy.

6. Our slogan was "a high floor and no ceiling". There was agreement across the political spectrum on this point.


7. Then we turned our minds to the massive challenge of implementation. We learnt eight lessons.

Lesson 1: The National Curriculum: benchmark it globally 8. The National Curriculum had proved its worth. From 1994 to 2006, successive governments had tinkered with it. In 2007, we decided the time had come for a comprehensive revision with the central aim of ensuring that our standards - especially in literacy, maths and science - were consciously benchmarked against the best in the world.

Lesson 2: Transparency: never underestimate the power of data 9. In 2007, we decided to take our data system to a whole new level. We learnt from experiments in places such as New York City how our data could be improved. We connected the data on individual pupils to that on individual teachers. This enabled headteachers to benchmark their staff against other teachers across the system.

10. We realised that schools needed comparative data not just once a year but quarterly. The availability of just-in-time tests meant that schools could sample their pupils' performance every 10 weeks, and rapidly receive a report benchmarking them against the rest of the system. These new developments supplemented the universal national tests, which were used for school accountability purposes.

Lesson 3: Funding: make a reality of progressive universalism 11. We had made real progress in the two decades up to 2006, devolving the overwhelming bulk of funding to schools.

12. Over the five years from 2007 to 2012, we adapted our funding formula to take account of objective individual pupil need more accurately.

Attainment prior to joining a school, immediate location (using postcodes), identification of special learning challenges and other such factors now informed the allocation a school received.

Lesson 4: Primary Education: it really is all about high standards of literacy and numeracy for everyone 13. We had known it for years, of course: literacy and numeracy by age 11 have a huge influence on success in all subjects at age 16, and on life chances and earning potential throughout adult life. From 1997, when we introduced the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, we began to take this fundamental truth literally.

14. In 2006, we strengthened the content and sequencing of the phonics element of the literacy strategy. We insisted on a minimum amount of progress for each child as well as a minimum standard for all. We cut all the elements of the national strategies other than literacy and numeracy, leaving schools to decide freely how to meet National Curriculum standards in all other subjects.

15. Above all, from 2008 we funded, through a new targeted, ring-fenced grant, one-to-one or small group tuition for every single child who fell behind his or her peers.

Lesson 5: Secondary Education: diversity really does drive up standards of performance 16. Once the 2006 legislation was in place and local authorities became commissioners of schools rather than providers, we were able to combine the provision of new supply with the tackling of failure. Again there was cross-party support. Almost all our major universities became sponsors of chains of schools and cities such as Sheffield used the new framework to transform their school system.

17. Perhaps most interesting was the establishment across the country of a couple of chains of small secondary schools - just 80-100 pupils - for the hardest-to-teach pupils, such as those with drug-addicted parents or who had suffered serious abuse. Weighted Student Funding made this possible.

This helped to reduce youth offending and drug abuse and enabled a major improvement in the results of looked-after children.

Lesson 6: Education and Training to age 18 - why on Earth did we leave it so long to make it compulsory, at least part-time?

18. We finally decided to make at least part-time education or training compulsory through to 18. The law passed with no significant opposition in 2008 and was fully implemented by 2015. Between 2007 and 2014 we had to put in place the programmes, institutional framework and mechanisms to make it a reality. We reformed Education Maintenance Allowances, strengthened apprenticeships and phased in 14 new vocational subjects.

19. From the start of the new policy in 2007-08, we realised that to make it effective we had to look at its implementation cohort-by-cohort. The 11-year-olds of 2007 would, of course, be the 18-year-olds of 2014. We had to make sure they arrived at age 16 with better results, a better attendance record, less bad behaviour and more motivation. Quite literally, we had a tailored national plan for each age cohort.

Lesson 7: Social Capital: fixing the school system is not enough 20. Several years ago we realised that, to achieve our 10-year goals, we would have to face up to the substantial and growing social capital differential (between the bottom and top of the social class distribution).

21. To tackle this, we developed the Pupil Learning Resources Credit. The essence of the concept was that each pupil in receipt of free school meals - about 15 per cent of all pupils - would receive a "credit" of pound;400 to spend on educational activities outside school - music lessons, outward bound activities, all the things that parents who have both the will and the means provide for their children as a matter of course. The credit could only be used once pupils' parents had agreed with a designated teacher on what it should be spent.

Lesson 8: Teachers - it is obvious, but so often missed - you can't do anything without excellent teachers.

22. Recruiting excellent teachers, giving them status and ensuring they are mutually accountable and continuously developing, is vital. Data from Tennessee was compelling - two consecutive years of poor teaching in primary school had a deleterious effect on pupils' life chances.

23. We had made huge progress with teacher recruitment between 2000 and 2006, improving the pipeline, the quality of training and the numbers coming in (even in shortage subjects). Most importantly, the quality of teaching of new recruits in their first year had risen steadily.

24. Then we turned our attention to professional development. For primary schools, the quality of the new data and the strengthening of the wider workforce ensured that all schools built time into the school week for teachers to plan lessons and review pupils' work together. At secondary level, the new data and the greater flexibility in timetables allowed by increased funding had the same effect. This powerful, ongoing professional development became part of the culture.

25. Meanwhile, as the baby-boom generation of heads retired in large numbers between 2006 and 2013, we took the chance to refresh school leadership entirely - we introduced personalised professional learning for every current and potential school leader and ensured much more rapid progress to leadership roles for the most talented teachers.


26. That's it. Like all the most successful transformations, it was simple in conception, but it was also rigorous in its implementation, courageous in its determination not to compromise with inherited professional shibboleths, consistently informed by evidence, sustained over time and, above all, focused throughout on the achievement of our 10-year goals.

Sir Michael Barber was head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, 2001-05.

This is an abbreviated version of a longer article published in Solace Foundation Imprint, March 2007, edited by Michael Bichard.

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