Instructed to deliver: who is Michael Barber?

Image: YouTube

The government has today announced that its preferred candidate for Chair of the Office for Students is Sir Michael Barber. This will be a hugely important role in higher education – and thankfully, we know a great deal about the person now likely to take it on.

Sir Michael Barber first entered the public eye in 1995, as an independent expert (then a Professor of Education at Keele University) brought in to recommend the closure of Hackney Downs School. Before this, he served as the head of Education at Hackney Council, a teacher of history, and a press officer at the infamously militant NUT.

A lifelong member of the Labour Party, he is best known for his work in Tony Blair’s administration – first with David Blunkett and Estelle Morris on the ‘Literacy Hour’ strategy, and then with Blair himself in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit.

The apparent success of the literacy hour (though later challenged, most notably by Peter Tymms in his 2004 paper Are standards rising in English primary schools?) and the innovations in civil service delivery (though undermined by his use of CfBT – now the Education Development Trust – to actually deliver the policy) gave him the reputation needed to re-focus Westminster departments on delivery and accountability through metrics. Target-driven Blairite initiatives, for example around hospital waiting times, bear the hallmarks of what began to be known – at first in jest, then in earnest – as Michael Barber’s ‘deliverology’.

With the rise of John Birt in Blair’s circle and the re-establishment of cabinet committees as the primary source of Prime Ministerial oversight in place of deliverology’s more structured ‘stocktakes’, Barber moved on into global educational development – working first with McKinsey and DfID, then at Pearson as Chief Education Advisor. His signature policy, working with James Tooley and others, was the low-cost private school in countries such as Pakistan and Ghana.

It is a fairly open secret in wonk circles that Barber was the principal architect and author of the Browne Review, in which his focus on data, metrics and what can perhaps be called ‘co-payment’ is clearly visible. It is a strange quirk of political history that he will now chair the organisation created by the Browne reforms which effectively sealed HEFCE’s fate in the big switch from central grant funding to higher tuition fees. Others may try and trace the ideological threads from the Blair to Cameron/Johnson years more closely.

Barber’s interest in higher education continued through to the extremely poorly received An Avalanche is Coming report, which caught the ‘disruptive edtech’ bubble perfectly and displayed both the ambition and lack of understanding that characterised that movement. We reviewed it on Wonkhe at the time, and it was not difficult to pick apart.

This work was parlayed into a brief and unexpected fame on the global education reform speaker circuit – never a keen public speaker (his press team briefings at Number 10 were characterised as torturous by lobby correspondents) he preferred to address this new constituency via books such as Deliverology 101 and last year’s How to Run a Government….

At Pearson, he was the driving force behind efficacy – an ambitious, if flawed, attempt to bring deliverology into educational research that aimed to prove which products and tools were most suitable for learning but lacked the research rigour to do so reliably. Pearson, by then pivoting hard into EdTech, enthusiastically bought into the idea but it was not enough to stall their declining profits – most notably in the US textbook market.

To OfS, Sir Michael Barber will bring a focus on metrics, measurement and league tables. Work, for example, on Learning Gain will be music to his ears, as will the Teaching Excellence Framework, itself already carrying many echoes of the Barber approach.

But all this may spell trouble for the historic HEFCE role as a ‘buffer body’ which is likely to fall away with the rise of OfS. Throughout his career, Barber has seen policy as something to be delivered rather than deliberated, and this change in attitude may wrong-foot many vice chancellors.

Leave a Reply