This page provides links to references, sources and additional material for the short film “THE AVALANCHE THAT HASN’T HAPPENED” first shown at the Open Education ’13 Conference in Park City, Utah.
Youtube link is here.
(secret Vimeo version [it's the same as the youtube version]- the password is “avalanche”)
If you want to see how the whole thing went down, man, in the Kokopelli Ballroom, man, this is the link you’ll be wanting.
Soundtrack Album - available free (CC-BY) on Bandcamp.
Instruction To Deliver – review of and notes on Michael Barber’s 2007 autobiography
Critics of Deliverology - analyses of deliverology from a variety of perspectives
Artistic statement - or why is this film not CC-BY?
Annotated references and sources
The opening is a montage of footage used elsewhere in the film.
The Pearson Affordable Learning Debate, in which Michael Barber interviews Ken Donkoh and James Tooley.
A clip from “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For” (Executive Producer, Michael Barber). Here’s the trailer which should give you some idea. It’s basically the British “Waiting for Superman“. But worse somehow. The official site is a delight, with a flash game which suggested I might consider a career in “Education and Training”. Despite the film being released for free, there was a huge promotional campaign, including inviting educational bloggers to review it. This is a particular favourite, for fairly obvious reasons.
A short clip of an Oxford protest against the recommendations of the Browne Review. Barber was a part of the team that developed this influential UK report, and it shows many of his hallmarks.
A clip from a presentation given by John Seddon, entitled “Why Deliverology made things worse in the UK“. He was presenting to the California Faculty Association. The whole thing is well worth watching. More about John Seddon later.
A clip from Barber’s presentation for the IPPR on “An Avalanche Is Coming”
The first part of the film is primarily concerned with the closure of Hackney Downs School. I’d recommend this article in the Independent to give you a sense of how big a deal this was in the UK. It was written by the authors of the definitive history of this whole shoddy tale, “Hackney Downs, the school that dared to fight” - Maureen O’Connor, Elizabeth Hales, Jeff Davies and Sally Tomlinson. One point that I just mention in passing is that Barber was (technically) in charge of all the schools in Hackney in the late 80s, as a member of the Hackney Council Labour Group. I’ve written a bit more about Barber’s (fascinating) life prior to Hackney Downs here.
The opening animation was produced, I think in all seriousness, for the IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research, a formerly respectable left-leaning think-tank in the UK) to promote the “Avalanche is coming” report.
As I note in the film, both main parties in the UK were keen to seize on the “successes” of Mossbourne Academy as vindication of their educational ideas. Here’s the Labour version, and here’s the Tory version (featuring Michael Gove before he lost his Scottish Accent). I’ve also taken some scenes from the school’s own film.
The clip of Michael Barber was from an old LBC radio interview, done by Independent Radio News. Love the cassette hiss! I note that JISC have digitised the archive, so you’d probably find the clip in the archive if you are in a UK institution.
Though school budgets are difficult to find and even more difficult to compare, it is generally agreed that Mossbourne receives around 30% more funding than comparable schools. This Peter Wilby article in the Guardian offers more details of the conditions for the success of Mossbourne, and some background about Sir Michael Wilshaw.
The second part of the film concerns Michael Barber’s work in Tony Blair’s government. His autobiography, “Instruction To Deliver“, covers this period and is well worth a read. It is a peculiar book – part memoir, part manual – but is testament to Barber’s rigour and intelligence, and he writes very well on the UK Blair administration. I’ve done a detailed review here, primarily focusing on his life prior to Hackney Downes.
I was delighted to be given “a nod” to use two short parts of Adam Curtis’ seminal film “The Trap” by Curtis himself:
“Dear David – I’m not officially allowed to give you permission. But if what you are doing is not for profit, and also is analysing critically the material in the films – then I see no problem with you using some short sections. The BBC is not going to worry – and after all the films are made with your money, so they should be publicly available for people like yourself to use. Consider this a “nod” - Adam”
He here makes an important point about reuse for critique in a not for profit context, and the reform of copyright laws to allow such material in such ways is something I come back to later in the film. But this kind note of encouragement emboldened me in my use of material from a range of sources.
The first part of “The Trap” I used was the opening shots of this section, which is one of Blair’s “press briefings” where Barber delivered a presentation. There were some entertaining if unfair reactions to this from journalists:
” The columnist Simon Jenkins called him “a control freak’s control freak”, while the Mail’s Quentin Letts compared him to the speaking clock. When he gave PowerPoint presentations on “delivery” before Blair’s monthly press conferences – described by one Downing Street official as “excellent punishment for the hacks” – one journalist muttered “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit” throughout.” (source)
The second part of The Trap is, of course, the famous piece on targets in the Blair administration. It eloquently and entertainingly describes the focus on targets (the majority of which came from Barber’s “Prime Ministers Delivery Unit”) and the way in which front line staff responded to them. A salutatory warning regarding what happens when you take autonomy and agency away from experienced staff and replace this with a meaningless and insulting monitoring regime.
Barber’s comments on Deliverology come from a video he made to promote his book “Deliverology 101” (which I initially though was called “Deliverology LOL”!). It is basically a more detailed repetition of the final third of “Instruction to Deliver”, and marks the point where someone who by his own admission understood very little about management became a “delivery guru”.
It was a pleasure to use excerpts from John Seddon’s address to California Faculty: Why Deliverology made things worse in the UK. The whole presentation is very good, he’s a great presenter and a very insightful analyst of the issues faced within the public sector. His book “Systems Thinking In The Public Sector“, is a book on management (with all that this entails), but largely transcends the form by being clear, thought-provoking and well referenced. I’m not sure that his “Vanguard” approach is the solution to all public sector management problems, but the book is worth engaging with and I would recommend it to anyone with a management or delivery role in public education. I’ve written some more about this (and other) critiques of Deliverology here.
I chose two short scenes showing excellent teaching in UK primary schools – one entitled “Ofsted Outstanding Year 2 Literacy Lesson Observation” and another called “Literacy – a non-negotiable: Reception – establishing foundations” which was actually produced by Ofsted (the UK schools inspection people). Both these videos show examples of excellent primary level teaching, anyone thinking of taking a lazy shot at teachers should watch them. I know I couldn’t do what they do.
Professor Tymms‘ superb paper, “Are Standards Rising in English Primary Schools?” was published by the British Educational Research Journal (vol 30, issue 4). It really lifted the lid for me on the complexities of comparing student achievement across schools and systems. You yourself can experience for yourself the delight of Barber and Tymms arguing about this in the notes of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Children Schools and Families in 2007.
But for me the most damning critique of Barber’s efforts in establishing the “Literacy Hour” in England’s primary school is a recent set of statistics from the OECD on adult literacy. Literacy amongst young people aged 16-24 (those who would have been aged 1-9 in 1998 when the intervention began) is lower than any comparator group and significantly under an international average. Clearly the experience of the Literacy Hour in primary schools has a negative correlation with adult literacy. Whilst not a valid causal link in itself, there are certainly questions to be asked around the claims of an improvement in literacy amongst the same English cohort, made by Barber and others.
Part three of the film was the first I conceived fully, and was inspired by watching the opening of We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For and noting the similarity in tone and feel to the famous school scenes (think “we don’t need no education”) in Pink Floyd’s film “The Wall“. The school scenes (and by extension the opening of “We are the people…”) typify for me both an adolescent critique of education in general, and a specific critique of command-and-control in education.
The former meaning is drawn on again and again by the millionaire technology rockstars that tend to get drawn into education reform after dropping out of education themselves. For me this is staggeringly narcissistic - these people employ many people who *have* benefited from the education system as it currently stands, and benefit themselves from a culture and society that allows them the infrastructure they need to innovate. “The Wall” feels like an ur-text to much of modern educational reform, everything from encouraging creativity to brighter environments to teacher monitoring and international comparability. Some one needs to write a paper entitled “The influence of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ in education policy” and present it somewhere. If no-one does, I will.
However, the images of pupils lining up to be processed against a dingy wall are a superbly eloquent illustration of the high-stakes common-assessment approaches that educational reformers often advocate. I guess it cuts both ways & I hope Roger Waters can forgive me.
Michael Barber himself has worked only with Gates, sitting on the board of the Gates Foundation funded U.S. Education Delivery Institute. (his current employer, Pearson, have a wider partnership with the Gates Foundation ($ NYT, paywall). But the foundation-led reform agenda has consistently informed his work, from Academy Schools in England onwards. And it is perhaps fair to argue that some of the politicians he has delivered policy on behalf of have a similarly limited understanding of education.
Some of our millionaire technology rockstars:
Bill Gates, on causing Mark Zuckerberg to drop out having dropped out himself, on teacher metrics. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major source of funding for educational reform.
Richard Branson, on dropping out of school and on others dropping out. Branson makes a lot of noise about education reform, but doesn’t appear to have done anything yet. Keep it up, Richard! He’s mainly here because: (1) he’s held up in the UK as some kind of aspirational figure for entrepreneurship and (2) he repeats the canard about Larry Page dropping out to start Google – which he did, but from a PhD, which is kind of a different thing if you already have an MSc. From Stanford.
Steve Jobs, on dropping out. (love the Stanford video ident!). I don’t want to get into the whole “Cult of Jobs” thing or to speak ill of the dead, but he did say a lot about education and not much of it was helpful.
With section four of the film we deal with some disturbing aspects of the way in which Barber’s wider ideas around education reform played out, with reference to his work at McKinsey and two of his early projects at Pearson, the “Learning Curve” report and the “Pearson Affordable Learning Fund“. It’s important to note that Barber himself is a small if significant part of a wider movement here, certainly he had no hand in the New Orleans reforms other than admiring it from afar and inviting Jay Altman to speak at a Pearson event he chaired. But for narrative purposes I’ve used his presence as a common link in what is becoming a global reform methodology, and I think his own desire to see education reform globally makes this valid.
£4,000-a-day is, of course, a completely inaccurate figure. Barber was paid £4,404 a day (initially £5,505) by the Department for International Development to work in Pakistan on Education reform. I’ve intercut this interview with this image, which is of a public school in Pakistan.
The “Learning Curve” work conducted by Pearson in partnership with The Economist describes itself as a “programme of analysis of school systems’ performance in a global context”. And an “attempt to help researchers and policymakers identify the common elements of effective education.”
What it actually is – is a whole bunch of data and analysis, of varying quality and authority, for a range of school systems around the world. So you can compare, with a moderate level of confidence, schools performance in, sa,y Pakistan with that in Ghana. There’s a bunch of tools and stuff to help you do it. Whenever you hear a politician saying our schools should be more like schools in Finland, this is where they got the data from.
Now, I’m all for open data – and if I can’t have that I’m all for data I can see and play with – but this has been an enormously counter-productive intervention as it encourages people to see education systems as sitting outside of the structure and history of the society it serves and encourages one-size-fits-all solutions. As the film describes.
The footage of Barber and Ho Peng comes from a Pearson-produced introductory video. The data they have clearly highlights the importance of high-quality teachers to student education – the way the work that Barber is actually involved in undermines this assertion is explored below. Ho Peng speaks for the education system in Singapore which is a whole other story.
I’ve taken the Ghana infographic stuff from a Pearson Affordable Learning video. One video I didn’t have space to use was a fantastic BBC Hardtalk interview of Barber by Sarah Montague of the BBC on the Affordable Learning Fund. It’s a great reminder of how well the BBC does this stuff, with some great questions that unfortunately don’t get the answers they deserve. But Affordable Learning is basically an investment vehicle for Pearson to invest in the “low-cost for-profit sector” in developing countries. I don’t feel that “a dollar a day” is low cost in a country where half the population is on less than two dollars a day – but maybe that is just semantics.
Omega Schools is an example of a low-cost for-profit school chain in Ghana. Co-founder Ken Donkoh talks about the Omega approach for Affordable Learning here – he is also interviewed (badly) along with co-founder and premier low-cost for-profit ideologue James Tooley (now there’s a subject for a documentary!) by Michael Barber for an Affordable Learning debate.
I thought long and hard about whether to include a section on New Orleans Schools. In effect, the charter school model is the beginnings of an American version of low-cost for-profit, and works in similar ways. The involvement of for-profit school partners, the use of non-traditional sources of teachers and the emphasis on high-stakes assessment and learner data is a constant across global education.
But I mainly wanted to include a section on New Orleans because it is a story that needs to be widely told.
The opening image is of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Naomi Klein writes about this period movingly in her book “The Shock Doctrine“, and she notes in passing the effects on the schools system which is what inspired me to research it.
“[Thomas] Friedman’s radical idea was that instead of spending a portion of the billions of dollars in reconstruction money on rebuilding and improving New Orleans’ existing public school system, the government should provide familes with vouchers, which they could then spend at private institutions, many run at a profit, that would be subsidised by the state” (p5)
The opening narration is from Democracy Now. It’s one of the very few clips I have cited in-picture, as I want http://www.democracynow.org/ to get the widest possible exposure as I like what they do and they need support.
Jay Altman’s interview with Michael Barber is from Pearson. Altman also works in the UK with the Future Leaders programme for aspiring school managers, and with the ARK chain of “free” schools and academies (similar to US charter schools).
The interview with Cherllynn Branch of Benjamin Banneker Elementary School in New Orleans is from a great documentary by Education Week, which goes into the politics of the issue in much more depth than I have space for. She’s now the principal of St Katherine Drexel Prep, formerly Xavier Prep.
There’s a nice Newsweek article about charter schools in New Orleans which may be of interest as further reading.
Each of the stories of educational success in this section does not stand academic scrutiny.
Jishnu Das of the World Bank, casts doubts on the effectiveness of Barber’s work in Pakistan. He notes that there is evidence of improvements in attendance and learning in Punjabi schools, but these improvements pre-date Barber’s interventions.
In Ghana, research conducted by Luke Akaguri at the University of Sussex found no significant difference in performance between low-cost for-profit and public schools in rural areas.
Regarding New Orleans, the National Educational Policy Centre finds issues with the data used that suggests that at best there is no significant difference between charter and non-charter school performance.
Moving on to Part 5, I’m primarily concerned with the “Oceans of Innovation” essay by Barber for Pearson/IPPR. Oceans is a very odd report that feels more like an intellectual exercise than anything that would be of help to those making public policy. It starts with a very slight economic history of the world, which is followed in the remainder of the report by advice to flourishing Asian economies about schools reform. For me it plays in to a range of arguments about innovation and growth, colonialism and intellectual property and education as an economic good.
Footage of Michael Barber introducing the report was taken from a video by “Teach for All”, and from this video by IPPR . I’ve used a lot of him speaking about the document as I think his own words and gesticulation best describe what he was trying to get at. The “Well Educated = E(K+T+L)” equation appears as a slide in the first video – Knowledge plus Thinking plus Leadership, all multiplied by(?) Ethics. I’ve deliberately not made a comment about that
I show in passing a reverse correlation between entrepreneurial confidence and mathematical literacy, first noted by Yong Zhao. In this instance I agree with Barber (who notes it on that this is an artefact of the way the data has been collected rather than a research finding per se) but unlikely findings like this do neatly underline the perils of using big data to make policy around education. These large datasets are most likely riven with similar artefacts based on local contextual information that is lost on aggregation.
Adrian Johns‘ book “Piracy” is one of the best written histories of intellectual property law I have ever read. It is utterly mesmerising, and I command you to stop messing about on the internet and go and read it. Now. Here, borrow my copy. I’ve used an excerpt of an interview he did with CSPAN2. I think his nuanced understanding of China is a great contrast to Barber’s. I have Brian Lamb to thank for introducing me to the work of Adrian Johns.
I think everyone has already seen Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything Is A Remix“. But if you have missed it, don’t feel ashamed. I first heard about it from my first iteration of ds106, which is kind of the “Velvet Underground & Nico” of EdTech, in that everyone that engages with it seems to end up doing something amazing.
It is fair to argue that the economic power of the western world has been damaged by our slavish devotion to intellectual property, and that we are tainting new countries with the same disease vector. To be clear, I’m not advocating abolishing the whole thing, but the balance has swung too far towards rights holders. Making this video and presenting it is my own attempt to reclaim open in a rather wider sense than would usually be meant by the phrase. Please download, copy and rehost the film and these notes wherever you like. Please use the source materials I have pointed to and even construct a rebuttal. I made it – that’s all I wanted to do.
Ending part 5 with the Browne Review may seem jarring but it is another aspect of the global impact of Barber’s ideas about education. I’ve written far too much about UK HE Funding policy to say anything further of insight here. But I’d recommend Andrew McGettigan’s “The Great University Gamble“, not least because he’s a damn fine chap. I used Browne’s introduction to the review, which is on DBIS’ YouTube channel. All the graphics are from the review, which was printed in what I can only describe as a mock-futurist style. The irony is not lost on me.
Part 6 of the film deals with “An Avalanche is Coming” (which I have already written about here to some considerable gaiety, and again here taking just one of the numerous fact-like statements to task ), and the way that Barber is now seen as a general expert in education. I use footage from Barber’s introduction to the report, and the response to the report by Steve Smith, the Vice Chancellor of Exeter University. My understanding is that Smith’s response to the report is toned down sharply from his comments at the report launch, but that’s just hearsay as I can’t find anyone who has written up or documented the event, other than Michael Barber’s daughter, Alys. Not even the IPPR or Pearson press office, which is odd.
Do read the “Avalanche” report, as it is – when approached in the right frame of mind – wildly funny.
I’ve also used some excerpts from an address Barber gave to the British Business Embassy, a charming UK government attempt to cash in on the momentary whimsy of the world’s attention during the Olympics. This is pretty much a “best of…” compilation of all his favourite hobby horses from across this film, delivered with an almost religious fervour. It made it clear to me that “Avalanche” is simply the Higher Education iteration of the same ideas that are being pedalled around the world.
The closing montage combines the DS106 pulsating brain with:
A clip from a KIPP schools project documenting the “rebirth of New Orleans schools”. I kid you not, they’ve made a whole movie about this stuff – complete with a soundtrack that sounds like someone being described the end of Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” without actually hearing it.
A further clip from the Education Week documentary stuff on Benjamin Banneker Elementary.
Another bit of “We are the people we have been waiting for” – which was given away free with The Guardian one Saturday in 2009. Did you know the film features Henry “The Fonz” Winkler?
And the “Avalanche Is Coming” promotional stop-motion thing, posterised, to fade. There’s some production notes on this version I found on Vimeo, and I redid the music in my own affectionate tribute to 80s independent music in the US.
And the link at the end goes to, er, this page. Thanks for reading.
Huge thanks are due to:
Viv Rolfe, for support, patience, encouragement and putting up with me talking about deliverology all the time!
Professor Mark Stiles, for superb narration.
Adam Curtis – for his generosity and support.
David Wiley – for the invitation that sparked the whole madness.
Brian Lamb – for inspiration and support.
Laura Pachkowski – for various very useful discussions
Steve Hull – for technical advice and encouragement
Mark Johnson – for continued inspiration
Audrey Watters – for being awesome.
The ds106 crew.
And my son, Ben, for encouraging me to make and do amazing things.