The mind behind Blair's big ideas

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Many of the education reforms of the past decade can be traced to one man.

Now Sir Michael Barber has written his inside account of those roller-coaster years. Geoff Barton reports

MICHAEL BARBER'S earlier book, The Learning Game, came just before the New Labour dawn of 1997. It read like the new government's education policy.

Much of what we now take for granted was there, full of radicalism, newness and unexpected toughness.

There was the benchmarking of Britain against our international competitors (we were mostly dire), the quiet scandal of many pupils' underperformance, the emphasis on what we now call "pupil voice" (Barber characterised two out of five pupils as "the disappointed"), proposals for performance management, use of "paraprofessionals" and apprentice teachers (the origins of workforce remodelling) and more attention on the basics of literacy and numeracy (strategies in waiting).

That book was a giddy mixture of idealism and old-fangledness which, despite Mr Blair's endorsement on the cover ("provocative and timely, illuminating and optimistic"), was not received with universal acclaim.

Dismissing many of Barber's ideas as unworkable, the anonymous Times Higher Education Supplement reviewer concluded: "I hope we do not have to endure another decade of educational reform to convince Barber of this unfortunate reality."

Never such innocence again. Here we are a decade on, and it's been a roller-coaster of reform. Few in education have escaped the sense of familiar queasiness as the next initiative pauses at the top of the tracks before hurtling into our midst. Strategies and policies, targets and action zones. Much of the landscape of our past 10 years can be traced directly back to the restless mind of the former professor.

In Instruction to Deliver, Barber is in reflective but feisty mood, providing a detailed retrospective on Blair's record - initially in education and then, more broadly, across all the public services.

For those of us who like this kind of thing, it is a stimulating and provocative read. The early part is revealing as it maps out how Barber got where he is now (which is an international consultant for McKinsey Company).

He is best known as head of the standards and effectiveness unit (what a New Labour ring that phrase has) from 1997 to 2001, then as head of the Government's delivery unit (ditto) from 2001 to 2005.

He begins at his own beginning. His Quaker background instils in him values that will shape his career as Hackney councillor, National Union of Teachers officer and education professor. From home and school he learnt that "I was on the planet to make a difference, to make the world a better place". His history teacher later told him: "Your year were the last of the idealists."

What characterises Barber - both in this book and in his work - is that his is a very pragmatic form of idealism. Those of us who have seen him at conferences see someone boffin-like, a grown-up Harry Potter figure, step unassumingly up to a podium. We expect rhetoric and idealism, airy ideas irrelevant to our lives on the front line. What we get is idealism underpinned by an often obsessive emphasis on impact, and a pervading mission to challenge complacency and to overturn orthodoxies. That's what makes his work so astringently unpredictable, and why so often we cynics end up joining in the standing ovation for his carefully crafted and deceptively simple Powerpoint presentations.

Thus, as a Labour councillor he felt that "the problem was not that people complained too much, but that they didn't complain enough". He listens to parents and pupils and learns of their wishes for better behaviour, better literacy and numeracy, not the navel-gazing irrelevancies that the council was engaged in. He later becomes part of the group that decides to close down Hackney Downs boys' school - a sign, once again, of his unexpected toughness.

At the NUT he finds himself agreeing with the principles of regular Ofsted inspection, of devolved funding to schools. But he sees the practical weaknesses - the lack of training for heads in managing budgets, the absence of extra funding, the madness of a labyrinthine national curriculum. He is intolerant of poor delivery from his earliest days.

Barber's work is marked by a determination to translate principles into practice. He believes strongly that a modern society needs to deliver equity (access for all, not just those who can afford to pay) with diversity (choice and personalisation). It is driven by what he calls "deliverology", part of a distinctive language which Barber uses throughout the book to explain how he set up a small Whitehall crack team designed to force government ministries to focus ruthlessly on the things that matter, measuring them in weekly graphs (he says his daughters knew him as "the Prime Minister's chief graph drawer"). He describes - and provides the graphs to demonstrate - how the unit aimed to reduce everything from heart disease mortality to queues in accident and emergency departments, to incidents of street crime, queues on motorways and rail delays.

Barber characterises his work - and indeed government - as "stubborn persistence, relentless monotony", an approach of "gentle pressure, relentlessly applied". And that's what his book describes in its own relentless way. It is compelling to read an insider's account of an age we have just lived through, where we have seen first-hand the impact, for good and ill, of the big ideas. There is a fascination, too, at gazing into the mind of someone so quietly and wholly determined to deliver. And for those of us who came into teaching driven by our own idealism, it is fascinating to watch how someone on a grander scale translates idealistic fervour into practical reality - and delivers.

Instruction to Deliver by Sir Michael Barber; Methuen, pound;19.99 Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School, Suffolk

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