It’s devastating when teachers shut the classroom door and never learn from each other

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Educational guru Sir Michael Barber on what the best schools get right and why teachers and governments have a part to play

Tony Blair’s mantra of education, education, education has become one of the most parroted and most parodied political catchphrases of recent years. The Labour Party leader coined the phrase when he was campaigning, successfully, to become British Prime Minister on a ticket of improving schools.

The man charged with making such bold promises a reality was Sir Michael Barber, a former Professor of Education at the University of London who had advised governments across the world on how to overhaul their school systems. As head of the British governments Policy Delivery Unit, he helped oversee greater funding for students, pay rises for teachers and a huge rise in university admissions although critics point out that paved the way for controversial university tuition fees.

Barber went on to spend six years at management consultancy McKinsey & Company as Head of its Global Education Practice, issuing two influential reports on educational effectiveness. He recently began work at educational publishing and software giant Pearson. As IB World examines how education can become more effective, and how it can create opportunities for an even more diverse global community, we asked Barber for his views on what works today.

How much correlation is there between how much you spend on education and the sort of outcomes you get?

There is very little correlation. That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend money on education around the world, governments in the developed and developing world are spending progressively more, because they can see education is so important to the 21st century, both economically and socially. But what’s been shown incontrovertibly is that it’s not the amount you spend it’s what you do with the money. That might sound obvious but it’s been missing in the past. The most important thing is to get good people into teaching and train them well. If you spend the money reducing class sizes without changing what teachers do, you end up like California, recently ranked 49th out of 50 states in the USA, having in the 1960s had one of the world’s best public education systems.

In McKinsey’s 2007 report How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top we got a deep understanding of how important it is to recruit really great people into teaching people with good academic qualifications but also the crucial personal characteristics of great teachers.

In your reports, you talk about setting standards. How does that work?

I’m talking about what we expect of a 15-year-old in mathematics, science or the national language setting those standards in line with what the best systems in the world expect. If you say to someone in the UK you’re good at maths, would they also be good if they were in Singapore, Finland or Korea? Unless we expect the same standards as the best systems in the world, we can have good teaching to standards that are too low.

Not every government has shielded education from austerity measures recently. Is that a mistake?

When you’re faced with holes in government debt, you have to take decisions that are unpalatable, and that sometimes affect education. It’s certainly a mistake to think that you can solve your long-term economic problems just by reducing the amount of money you spend on education. Education systems are becoming more expensive. We’re expecting all children to reach higher standards, which we didn’t expect in the middle of the 20th century. We’re expecting greater proportions of each cohort to go to university. That all costs. Over time, it will cost more to run education systems and if you do the right things with the money, education is a really good investment.

You highlight countries like Finland and Korea as being best in class in certain academic areas. But how much of their superiority is down to culture?

I completely accept that culture is a major influence on education systems, and in Korea, Japan, China and the Chinese diaspora there is a huge value attached to education. In China, going back thousands of years there has been a sense that achieving in education is about working hard. So culture is influential, but you can’t say that people only achieve high standards in mathematics in Asian cultures they also do well in Ontario or Finland. There have been big improvements in Poland. There’s lots of evidence that people can achieve high standards in any subject in any part of the world.

But achieving high standards is more of a challenge in countries, which lack basic educational infrastructure

I’m currently doing a lot of work with the Punjab government in Pakistan. There is no point in them saying we’d like to be like Finland, so let’s copy them because their educational systems are at different stages of development. But if they say we’d like to be more like Western Cape in South Africa, the answer is yes you can. Over time, it will demand investment, assistance and evidence-based educational reform.

[South] Korea in 1960 had the same GDP as Ghana but now has a high GDP per capita and half of its growth in GDP compared to Ghana over that period is attributable to the education system, according to the World Bank. If developing countries get their systems and leadership right, there is a lot of hope.

Is there a right pedagogic approach to improvement?

There’s no one right philosophy, and for me this debate gets too superficial too quickly. In parts of China and Japan, they worry that traditionally students have been taught very systematically, in a very top-down way with a lot of rote learning and they want to know how to bring creativity out. They look at the UK, or parts of the US and Canada, and ask what they can learn. But we know in the UK that at times the teacher was teaching too little and too much was left for students to make up, and our system drifted.

In 1996, when I was working for the government, there was a report that showed that in literacy our performance in England hadn’t improved in 50 years. By any standard, that can’t be acceptable.

What you see in the best systems is teachers working together to plan lessons, a lot of collaboration at a school level and between schools, using what works in the classroom rapidly rather than waiting for the end of the year. When I taught that sequence in mathematics, did the students learn it or not? If they did, how did I do that and how can I share it with my colleagues? If they didn’t, which of my colleagues taught the same lesson but their children learned?

What’s absolutely devastating, whether you’re in a didactic system or otherwise, is if teachers go into the classroom, shut the door and never learn from each other.

In that system occasionally you get some brilliant teacher, the Mr Chips figure, the hero teacher, but you can’t rely on that.

What characteristics do the best school leaders share?

The really important thing is to set the climate where collective capacity-building can happen. They need to focus on classroom practice, know what good practice looks like, make time in teachers daily lives where they can learn from each other rather than trudge from one classroom to another and then go home. They create a dialogue about continuous improvement and pedagogy.

What role should testing play in an effective system?

Teachers need to know whether what they are teaching is working, and they need to know that today. Having methods of assessment close to the classroom is crucial to the improvement process. You need to know whether a school, over time, is making as much progress as other schools. You then need some sort of national assessment to see the impact of policy on students and schools. And finally, you need assessment for qualifications somebody to say this person is ready for life, work or university. That is a major debate taking place in the USA at the moment.

That sounds like a lot of testing. Doesn’t that just reward those who are good at tests, or who are tutored for it?

But there’s quite a lot of evidence that if you don’t externally assess pupils, teachers consistently have low expectations of children from poor backgrounds. So external assessment is actually a step forward. Yes, it’s a lot of assessment, but you don’t need a lot of national assessment. The US does a lot of that, but in Australia they have four lots of assessment in a school career.

It’s hardly a huge burden. And if you don’t assess, you don’t get knowledge about the system and you don’t get evidence-informed policy. Very often, the same people who argue in favour of evidence-informed policy talk about kicking away the thing that would provide you with the evidence. Of course, parents will always pay for tutors and there’s not a lot we can do about that...

What’s your impression of the IB and how it can best prepare for the future?

The IB Diploma Programme is a great qualification that’s trusted and broad. The schools I have been to swear by it. One reason people like it is that it does benchmark internationally, and it has great potential to grow. Generally, it is seen by teachers and heads as something that’s for the top students, not the whole cohort. So one question for the IB is what’s going to happen, how will it become universal?