The moderate revolutionary

4th May 2001 at 01:00
The architect of the contentious key stage 3 strategy be-lieves he is saving state schooling, reports Biddy Passmore.

With his lean face, cropped hair, granny specs and unruly shirt-tails, Michael Barber looks like a revolutionary in need of a good meal.

But in fact, he is unlikely to be short of food, especially since his recent translation from expert adviser to full civil servant at the Department for Education and Employment, where he earns pound;100,000-a-year as head of the standards and effectiveness unit.

And, although a lifelong member of the Labour party, Barber, 45, has tended to dwell on its moderate rather than revolutionary wing and is now devoted to New Labour.

But the revolutionary look is not entirely misleading. For there is a messianic zeal in his determination to drive the changes sweeping though English schools. His aim, as he described it at a conference in Washington last autumn, is certainly revolutionary: "the elimination of pupil failure". This autumn sees the latest step towards that goal - his key stage 3 strategy extends the techniques and lessons of the primary literacy and numeracy strategies to the start of secondary when standards tend to slump.

As ever, with the Government's initiatives to raise standards, there is already a chorus of complaint about bullying and extra burdens. But Barber will have none of it. His own TES article on experience in the pilot schools recognised "some teething problems" but said the whisper was growing louder that the scheme was beginning to work.

Deviser of the Government's Fresh Start policy and overlord of the literacy and numeracy strategies, education action zones and excellence in cities, Barber fears social breakdown if Labour's school improvement policies fail to work. A near-apocalyptic passage in the recent Green Paper, which Barber co-wrote with his friend, the Downing Street adviser Andrew Adonis, describes how an increasingly prosperous society could otherwise turn to private education, thus leading to a spiral of decline in the state sector. (Barber and his wife Karen themselves shunned the local state school in Hackney for the education of one of their three daughters.) Michael Barber has been criticised by Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University for being a member of the middle-class, privately-educated elite surrounding the Prime Minister who "have not had a feel of state education from the inside".

His background was certainly comfortable (his father was fnance director at Jacobs, the biscuits firm) but the school he attended was far from the stereotype of a socially-exclusive public school. His Quaker parents sent him at 11 to Bootham, the Quaker boys' boarding school in York.

Barber won a scholarship to read history at Queen's College, Oxford, then studied political economy at Gottingen in Germany before starting teaching. His first job was at Watford grammar school. He left it in 1983 for Zimbabwe, where he taught at a 2,000-pupil school outside Harare. On his return, he joined the National Union of Teachers, becoming head of the education department in 1989. It was he who co-ordinated the opposition to testing that led eventually to the teachers' boycott and the review of the national curriculum. (His successor, John Bangs, likes to point out the contrast between those years and Barber's more recent "top-down" approach to reform.) Just as significant in the development of Barber's educational thinking were the years he spent during his time at the NUT as a member of Hackney borough council, and he chaired the education committee when it took over the running of schools from the Inner London Education Authority. He saw at first hand the havoc wreaked in schools by political infighting in one of the most deprived education authorities in the country. (He was later to become a member of the 1995 government hit squad that recommended the closure of Hackney Downs school - and, in 1997, supported a central government takeover of Hackney's schools.) In 1993, he took over from Tim Brighouse as professor of education at Keele University and, two years later, was recruited by Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, to the post of dean of new initiatives. It was not long before David Blunkett and Tony Blair came knocking on his door as they developed their education policies for the 1997 election.

He sits squarely within the New Labour high command, trusted by both Blunkett and Blair, and is a valued conduit between the Department for Education and Employment and Number 10. He has, however, been less of a major policy presenter since a couple of embarrassing gaffes, notably the suggestion that global citizenship should replace religion as the basis of moral teaching in schools.

Whoever succeeds David Blunkett as education secretary, the Government's policy on school improvement is likely to gather momentum and Michael Barber will be there, energetically driving the engine.

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