I can say with some degree of confidence that Michael Barber has made my life significantly worse, not once (as a career public servant driven to distraction by metrics and targets) not twice (as someone who worked in the UK HE sector pre-Browne review) not three times (as an education technology specialist trying to pick the fact from the fiction in the MOOC movement) but an astonishing four times (as the father of a child who reads amazingly well but it utterly bewildered by “synthetic phonics”). Despite this, I can’t quite shake a sneaking admiration for a man who has striven to make the world a better and fairer place in the best way he sees.
Barber’s professional life is presented in a book that is part memoir and part manual, but I can’t help but suspect he would be happier to see it presented as a series of graphs. Metrics and targets are the ideas that move his narrative forward, and the idea of routine and continuity pepper each chapter. He’s taken ideas and damn well made sure they were delivered and stayed delivered, and that the numbers returned backed up the original ideas.
He began his career in the Hackney branch of the Labour Party in the mid/late 80s and early 90s(a few years after Blair), and described some of the acts of his party members of “silly”, which to any student of Labour Party history is akin to someone living in Berlin in 1989 describing things as being “noisy”. Hackney Council in the late 80s was an astonishing place. There were allegations of corruption and child abuse, budgetary crises, education crises… I’m not for a second implying that Barber had anything to do with any of these (though he was head of education at the council) but for him to mention none of this is bizarre to say the least.
“Meanwhile, in the council meetings themselves, I watched the madness around me and tried to vote sensibly. In fact, there was a minority of us in the Labour group whom the other described disparagingly as “the sensible caucus”, which left me wondering about what they were” (p8)
Equally bizarre is the way a rank-and-file history teacher could become a policy wonk at the notoriously militant National Union of Teachers and move from there to become a Visiting Fellow and then Professor of Education at Keele University. Barber describes these moves as a matter-of-fact; in reality they must have been driven by a great deal of work, publication, profile-raising and personal connection.
Regarding some of this – there is no mention of Barber’s 1992 IPPR publication with Tim Brighouse “Partners In Change“, his scholarly 1994 account of the 1944 Education act, his 1996 book “The Learning Game” (“arguments for an educational revolution”, apparently – reviewed in Times Higher Education by none other than James Tooley!), the 1996 book on the National Curriculum he wrote with Chris Woodhead and Sheila Dainton… how did he make these contacts, and begin this research? It would greatly help the reader to know.
“Partners in Change” – in particular – would have been an interesting addition to ItD. “In the minds of most educational-policy makers,” it laments (p1) “the image of school organisation appears to have barely changed in 100 years“. We see the “exponential growth in knowledge” and a “technological revolution” (anticipating Avalanche) follow in quick succession.
A case study baldly states (p18) “There is widespread acceptance that in the field of science and technology education the British education system has been unsuccessful relative to other leading studies“, though this is not referenced. The pamphlet itself is a plea for the wider introduction of “Teaching Assistants” – para-professionals in the classroom supporting fully-trained teachers, and concludes in Austen-esque fashion: “It is universally accepted that ways must be found of ensuring that standards of achievement rise substantially throughout the decade ahead […] In this context, our proposals could constitute a major contribution to the development of the “learning society” Britain so badly needs to become.”
Teaching assistants became widespread throughout the Blair administration, and are generally seen as a supportive force for good. But form and nature of the argument, and a few of the saws to which Barber returns throughout his life, are of most interest to us more than 20 years later. One aside, “… a political as well as a pedagogical pay-off could be anticipated“, is particularly telling. And one footnote (the only possible reference) from Instruction to Deliver on the topic, “a very young [David] Miliband had been through our draft with a copious red pen. [Tim] Brighouse [now Sir Tim, director of UK schools IT company RM] commented: “Do you know the most annoying thing of all is that he was right almost every time?” is just plain amusing.
There are omissions too, in his account of the literacy (and numeracy) strategies on which his name was made in government. Despite his later “deliverology” claims, Barber used non-profit CfBT to drive the changes he was mandating into schools. Quoted in “Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching” (Bangs, MacBeath, Galton: 2010) he notes:
“Implementation… wasn’t really what [civil servants had] done before… I don’t regret having a relationship with CfBT (who delivered the literacy and numeracy strategies) it worked; it was much easier and more flexible than it would have been if it was in-house. [There was] a massive advantage to not having them as civil servants”
When one is making broad claims about public sector reform, it may not be politic to mention that you brought in the third sector to push through changes as you were unable to work with the staff you had. My own experience of civil service policy-making suggests that they were, in fact, prefiguring Tymms and suggesting that his changes would not be effective.
Barber is noticeably absent from most of the major political biography from the early years of the Blair administration. Blair himself mentions Barber only four times in “A Journey”, each only in passing. Alastair Campbell’s voluminous diaries offer little: “Michael Barber was impressive, and seemed like a really good bloke” (p667) “was impressive” (p678) in volume 3 (1999-2001), and later in the same volume noting some of Blair’s concerns about Barber:
“He (Blair) was still worried that even if Michael Barber’s changes went through, and even if all the targets were met, would that actually deliver the first-class public services we had talked of. His approach though was still very top down” (p688)
Mandelson offers only one comment in his excellent “The Third Man”: […] Michael Barber was a zealously reformist academic, who advised Tony on education before the election” (p227) and tellingly, Barber mentions the acknowledged architect of New Labour only three times. Little love lost?
Ken Follett, reviewing Instruction to Deliver in The Guardian, gets to what I think of the heart of the differences between Barber and Gordon Brown.
“What is missing from this picture? Parliament, of course. A completely different view is held by Gordon Brown, one of the few politicians I know who is as bright as Barber. Brown has been talking about returning power to the House of Commons.”
The latter part of Instruction to Deliver is a series of recommendations on enhancing the power of the Prime Minister via changes to the structure of the civil service. It is clear to me that to Barber, policy is something to be delivered, whereas with Browne policy is something to be debated. Parliament (and indeed, democracy) is almost entirely absent from Instruction to Deliver.
And this, to me, is the central point that I’ve taken away from this telling of Michael Barber’s career. He displays surprisingly little interest in policy, he appears divorced from any conception of a grand narrative. Politics, to him, is about making the graph go in the right direction, and about ensuring that ministerial whims are carried out.
For an obviously smart man, this surprises me greatly. A large section of the book is entitled “routine”, and deals with the day-to-day rounds of meetings and emails that bridge the gap between policy and statistical return. He takes a qu0te from Matthew D’Ancona as a mantra:
“There is no drama in delivery… only a long, grinding, haul punctuated by public frustration with the pace of change” (p112)
He cites stoicism as his favoured quality in a sporting hero, a “constant sense of steady progress” as his favourite journey (the trans-Siberian railway!) and, most incredibly for the UK left:
“I remember watching with admiration as Denis Healy made his famous speech at Labour’s 1976 party conference defending his decision to go cap in hand [yes, he actually uses those words!] to the International Monetary Fund and the cuts that ensued“
Anthony Seldon, in his biography “Blair Unbound” writes about the beginning of the end of deliverology.
“Barber was resistant [to the Birt-led project on the cabinet committees in Blair’s third term] believing the existing structure of stock-takes and informal exchanges with ministers suited Blair better, but Whitehall had the upper hand. After the  election the new Cabinet Committee structure swung into operation”
What was best for Blair was not necessarily what was best for government, and it took an outsider like Birt to see this. Barber notes:
“What happened in practice after the election was that the committees did have a value, particularly to other participants. However, they did not offer the Prime Minister what he really wanted […] which was a sharp, informal, genuine exchange with a secretary of state about what was happening and what was planned. […] After the first of the new Cabinet Committees, which took place shortly before I left, Blair exclaimed in exasperation, “What’s happened to my stocktakes?”, exactly as I had anticipated (p254)
It is difficult not to admire Barber’s tenacity, and his conviction that he is making a positive change in the world. I wanted to dislike him – I don’t. But I worry about a culture that prides unquestioning loyalty over critical thinking – and I have seen at first hand the changes in the civil service that this brought about. To give Blair what he wanted was not to give Blair what he needed… and Blair’s administration was marred by a pursuit of metrics over genuine change.