Skip to main content

Professor who sets standards goalposts

The glory days have arrived for Michael Barber, the slight bespectacled figure who sits alongside ministers when they make major education announcements.

The youngish - 41-year-old - academic from the Institute of Education at London University walked into his job at the Department for Education and Employment within hours of Tony Blair assembling his Cabinet.

Like his hero Robbie Fowler, the Liverpool striker, Professor Barber's flashes of brilliance have brought him to a position of influence envied by other players. In advance of the election victory, Labour's power brokers had decided on the unusual step of drafting Professor Barber into the DFEE at the level of a senior civil servant. Technically, he is classed as an expert adviser, but in reality he has responsibility for running the newly-created standards and effectiveness unit.

The Civil Service appears to have offered little resistance to such a political appointment to its senior ranks. Professor Barber, himself, has no qualms over possible conflicts which might arise from combining a policy role with that of an administrator.

What matters to him is that the strategies he and others have been pressing for to raise standards in schools are implemented. The case he makes for his own appointment is that politicians require more than detailed research from academics about the difficulties involved; they need practical solutions.

His skill at bridging the gap between the academic and political worlds has generated envy among the wider informal circle of advisers on education policy. Key proposals in next week's White Paper owe their origin to Professor Barber.

The Government has adopted his final solution for schools deemed to be beyond salvation and there are likely to be new powers to allow ministers to close them.

Professor Barber spelt out his vision in his book The Learning Game, which was published last year but failed to live up to hopes that it would be the education world's equivalent to Will Hutton's The State We're In. The Learning Game is packed with innovative ideas that range from education video shorts to ways of restructuring the school day and classroom organisation.

The concrete proposals include ways of funding a network of homework study centres and education vouchers for children from disadvantaged homes by taxing universal child benefit.

Professor Barber's own childhood was relatively affluent. He is one of five children brought up in a Quaker home. The family lived in Aughton, a small village near Southport, until his father, finance director at Jacob's biscuits, was relocated to Henley-on-Thames.

He was sent at 11 to Bootham, an independent Quaker boys' boarding school in York, where his history teacher remembers him as writing with great verve and as having high ideals and concern for social justice. Even in those days he was a passionate Liverpool supporter.

He won a scholarship to read history at Queen's College, Oxford, and studied political economy at Gottingen University in West Germany, before embarking on a teaching career. His first teaching job was at Watford grammar school. He left there for Zimbabwe where he taught at a 2,000-pupil township school outside Harare.

He then spent eight formative years at the National Union of Teachers. He joined in 1985 as an assistant administrative officer and spent his last four years with the union as head of the education department. It fell to him to co-ordinate the opposition to testing that led eventually to the teachers' boycott and the review of the national curriculum.

During that time, Professor Barber established a useful working relationship with Chris Woodhead, now Chief Inspector, who was then deputy chief executive at the National Curriculum Council.

The wider world became aware of Professor Barber when in 1993 he took over from Tim Brighouse, now the chief education officer in Birmingham, as professor of education at Keele University and in 1994 he became a regular TES columnist. At Keele, he pressed the case to ministers for changes in the exam league tables to measure how schools improve over time - an idea that was adopted in part by the Government last week.

Before joining the DFEE, he had spent just over a year as dean of new initiatives at the Institute of Education. Peter Mortimore, who recruited him, speaks of his protege's flair and energy. While there may be difficulties for academics who take on political roles, according to Professor Mortimore, there is no one more suited to the job than Professor Barber.

As well as being a long-standing member of the Labour party - he even stood for Labour against Michael Heseltine in Henley in 1987 - Professor Barber is a veteran of the splits on the left in Hackney. He put in the endless attendance required at Labour party meetings and was chair of the borough's education committee at the point Hackney took over running schools from the Inner London Education Authority.

In essence, he is more of a politician than an academic. The title of professor in his case is misleading - it belongs to the post he holds at the Institute. Although a prolific writer - he has published seven books since 1992 - he has not earned his reputation in the traditional academic way by producing substantial research.

Within the academic community, there are those that carp at his swift rise to prominence. The more prevalent view is that he is rare among academics in being able to provide politicians with policy directions based on an intelligent reading of what is likely to work.

The more serious reservations about him as policy adviser are contained in a review of his book, The Learning Game, by Margaret Maden, who succeeded him as professor of education at Keele. She says his greatest strength is his imagination and his sense of the wider world. His greatest weakness, she suggests, is an evasion of the larger system reform required and expected of government.

However, she insists that other academics should take note that he is someone who comes up with solutions rather than "a seemingly endless and often opaque critique".

Professor Barber is unlikely to accept that he lacks a vision of the large-scale reform that is required. He is motivated by the Government's drive to raise standards, and improve what is on offer to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The problem with being determined to change the world is that you may be forced into expediency. In the haste to make waves, it is possible not to pay sufficient regard to the research evidence. Robbie Fowler just goes for the goal.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you