Could this be the end of education as we know it?

12th December 2014 at 00:00
Historic change will mean fewer teachers, Sir Michael Barber says

A learning revolution that will mean fewer teachers, an "explosion" of data and a departure from traditional schooling has already begun, according to one of the world's most prominent educationalists.

Sir Michael Barber believes that a combination of globalisation, new digital technology and the failure of top-performing school systems to further improve is triggering the first major shake-up of formal education in 140 years.

These "game-changers" will "shake the very foundations of the current paradigm of school education", Sir Michael, who served as adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair, argues in a paper published today. And that will lead to big changes for teachers, he told TES in an exclusive interview.

"We will need top-quality professionals - and, yes, we may need fewer of them," Sir Michael said. "And then a range of different other staff, some of whom might be teachers as we currently have them and some of whom might be other things - other types of professionals such as technicians or what we used to call lab assistants. I think you will get some unbundling of the school and a greater diversity of types of work in a school."

Highly qualified teachers would be needed to capitalise on the "explosion in data" from digital systems that "track learning and teaching at the individual student and lesson level every day", he said. These systems would integrate continuous computer monitoring of pupil progress with teaching, making education more "personalised".

Blended learning, where pupils spend at least part of their school day learning online, showed "real promise", added Sir Michael, who wrote an influential report for the McKinsey consultancy in 2007 that emphasised the importance of teacher quality to educational improvement.

As TES revealed last year, there are already plans to bring blended learning to England: academy chain Ark is due to open a free school based on the approach.

"If a system can get better results for the same amount of money by spending it differently, or get better results by spending less, that is a big gain," Sir Michael said. "The public service reform debate.needs to get away from `the only way we can improve our outcomes is by spending more money'. That isn't credible."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he could see teachers' roles changing but was not convinced that fewer staff would be required. "Young people still need face-to-face contact," he added.

Sir Michael's new paper (bit.lyBarberPearson), written with Australian educationalist Peter Hill, argues that teaching today is a "largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionised, bureaucratically controlled `semi-profession' ". But it is about to become "a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base".

Sir Michael, who spent eight years working for the NUT, told TES: "We have got to get this to be a rigorous profession that is not modelling itself on 20th-century industrial trade unions".

But Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL union, accused Sir Michael of being driven by a "neo-liberal ideology", adding: "It is interesting that he equates heavily unionised with semi-professional, when it is the unions that have stepped in to do the training and development of the profession."

Sir Michael stressed that computer-based assessment, including automated essay marking, would take a lot of the "drudge work" out of teachers' jobs, providing "a real opportunity to give great feedback, well-informed and well-benchmarked".

And he argued that England's exam system remained a potential barrier to improvement. "We have got to get over - and the technology will allow us to do this - the view that only a formal, written, two- or three-hour exam is rigorous," said Sir Michael, who is chief education adviser for Pearson, parent company of England's biggest exam board Edexcel.

"We will be able to get rigour in totally new environments. If you are a pilot being trained in a virtual environment that is very, very rigorous, but it is also very authentic."

He called for a 10-year cross-party strategy to overhaul assessment. "The risk is that we see rigour associated with the past - and `the gold standard', as used often in England, tends to mean A-levels some time in the 1950s," he said. "But really the gold standard is Singapore or some place in the future."

Sir Michael's paper argues that even the world's apparently top-performing school systems will have to change, stating that few have achieved statistically significant improvements over the past decade, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

"Unless we really think through what the opportunities are with this renaissance, we could miss the boat," he writes. "We could keep having the 21st-century debate while the 21st century passes us by."

`Computers can't replace humans'

Roland Marsh, headteacher of Applemore Technology College, says his school in Dibden Purlieu, Hampshire, has begun developmental work with online testing.

"But it is a question of having the resources in place to ensure that it is consistently applied for all our students," he says. "We have got to make sure it is fair and equitable. And finance is always going to be a major issue.

"Training is another key aspect, because we would have to make sure our staff were all familiar with the changes and that our students and parents understood it, too. It is a culture shift and it would be important to take everyone with us.

"However, testing and data don't necessarily make learning better and nothing is going to take away from the relationship that staff have with their pupils - that is the key thing.

"When you have a less confident student, I can't necessarily see how a computer program would take the place of a human."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today