Barber’s Meaningless System

This was going to be a post about the Tory White Paper. We took a look at it but what really caught our eye was how many times Sir Michael Barber got a mention. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Barber was Education Secretary given the amount of space devoted to his work in their White Paper.

Barber’s McKinsey ‘How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better’ report is easy to get hold of so we wanted to see what the fuss is all about.

For those of you who don’t know, Barber is the guy who set up the infamous Delivery Institute in the UK. Barber is also a systems man, and ‘system(s)’ pop us on countless occasions both in the White Paper and in his weighty meta-analysis. Not really knowing what ‘system’ meant outside of sewers, we wanted to know what he meant by it. This has proved much easier said then done.

We couldn’t find any definition of system in Barber’s tome, for example. To give him a chance before we concluded it didn’t mean anything, we had a look elsewhere. After a little bit of rummaging around, we came across a definition in Barber’s other McKinsey report ‘How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top’.

On p.8 of this report, ‘system’ is defined as “the critical infrastructure that underpins performance”. It’s a start but this doesn’t tell us very much. Infrastructure is defined elsewhere as “the basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization”. In military or economic terms this means installations, roads, water supply, sewers, power grids and telecommunications. Is that what Barber is getting at?

We guessed that he probably didn’t mean it like this.

A little later on in the beginning of his first report he has a stab at defining system a little more precisely. Well to be exact he says what it isn’t. He says that this “critical infrastructure” is not pedagogy or curricula.

If ‘system’ has nothing to do with “pedagogy or curricula”, however, what then is it about? One clue on the same page is that ‘system’ enables “better teaching and greater learning”. We’re not told explicitly how it does this, though.

There is then a list of recent reforms on the same page: greater autonomy for schools, reducing class sizes, increasing spending, school governance, school admissions, curricula standards, assessment and testing and quality of inspection.

If such reforms enable better T&L then perhaps those that implement the reforms are the system (for it can’t be the reforms). This would be teachers, students, parents, support staff, politicians, inspectors and so on. But these are not mentioned explicitly.

He does talk about teacher quality, however. But this is despite us explicitly being told earlier in the report that system (“critical infrastructure”) has nothing to do with pedagogy. So is he saying that system equals teachers only, minus their methods?

Now what is going on here. A teacher without methods doesn’t sound like a teacher. And we’re pretty sure that teacher quality should include teaching methods as much as anything else.

But reading on it seems that Barber has changed his mind. That system does include pedagogy, firstly, and teaching quality is about pedagogy after all. For example, we are told that “these drivers [teaching quality] require that changes be made in other parts of the system”. And on p.16 there is talk about “improving instruction”, “the only way to improve outcomes (i.e. T&L) is to improve instruction”.

And it doesn’t get any clearer from here. A bit further along in the report, ‘system’ pops up again. This time, though, it includes context, culture, politics and governance. So we now get a larger number of things that ‘system’ is supposed to be, not just “critical infrastructure” and teaching quality/pedagogy/instruction.

The confusion continues. Despite saying ‘system’ included these other things, the 2007 report makes it clear also that teacher quality, effective instructors in terms of outcomes and targeted pupil support are the key drivers in a more successful system.

To recap then Barber’s ‘system’ could be said to include all or some of the following: context, culture, politics, governance, teacher quality, funding, greater autonomy for schools, reducing class sizes, increasing spending, school governance, school admissions, curricula standards, assessment and testing, quality of inspection and not forgetting clear expectations.

However, we mustn’t forget also that the most “critical” of these, according to Barber, are teacher quality, effective instructors in terms of outcomes and targeted pupil support.

This will not do. This is having your cake and eating it. We have one definition of a ‘system’ then we have another. Which one is it? Are the three drivers part of a super-system? A system within a system? If not, what kind of system is it? A dual-system perhaps? Hierarchical?

At this point we gave up. Despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t get to bottom of what was meant by system, and all this from the men at the heart of UK education policy.

Barber and the Tories have focused on a few elements and called it a ‘system’ when in fact it is nothing of the sort. It would help if they knew what it meant, but, as we’ve seen, Barber’s not sure. One minute pedagogy isn’t part of it, the next it is. One minute his system has a large number of elements but the next there are three ‘drivers’ that are more important. Utter nonsense.

And why is teaching quality the most important part of his system anyway? It’s important, but it is so difficult to agree on what ‘quality’ means.

We think that Barber’s ‘system’ would be better off including other things that are perhaps easier to grasp. Why not safe and supportive learning environments, for example? Or fewer exams? Or access to good schools for all, not just the savvy middle-classes? Or higher salaries, less overtime and more perks for teachers? Or an end to the bullying of teachers in the media and blaming them for the whole of society’s ills?

Why doesn’t he mention all those young teachers on low salaries unable to afford the rent while paying off student loans, saving for a deposit and working unpaid overtime week after week? In banking, we are sold the line ad nauseam that higher salaries and perks attract the best talent. Why not for teaching? Are teachers not worth the money?

Or, even better (but as he’s the person largely responsible for it very unlikely!), why not blame underperforming schools on the onerous and thoroughly discredited delivery & target culture smuggled in from scientific management theory?

The growth of this awful management creed has meant many things but none of them good for teachers. The inordinate amount of time wasted filling in forms, teaching to the test and tracking students, the invention of spurious targets and creative accounting, and the rise of the overbearing micromanager.

Barber’s CV makes interesting reading. He hasn’t been a school teacher for many years (of course we should remember that this is better than Gove who has never been a teacher!). When Barber was a teacher at Watford Grammar and before at the NUT he later seemingly undermined teaching union efforts to secure proper salaries for teachers, he wouldn’t have had to deal with delivery of targets, testing and accountability. He would have just taught and worked it out for himself.

However, this self-reliant, trusting and responsible form of school education isn’t anymore good enough for state school kids and those who teach them. It is, by way of contrast, still good enough for rich kids and staff at private schools. They can still do pretty much what they like.

In Barber’s Tory manifesto his ‘system’ doesn’t include any of these things – the lack of proper salaries, the political interference, the constant barrage of new initiatives, the bullying of teachers in the press – because that isn’t what the management consultants and their chums in government or business want or care about. They only see numbers and ratios and a chance to make money.

But it’s not just about money, of course. It’s also about change for change’s sake, about brainstorming sessions in Whitehall and about the close and cosy relationship management consultants have with politicians of both sides of the House. They all want a piece of the public sector action and show how clever they are and this report/manifesto and the White Paper sets this out as clear as day.

Barber, McKinsey and the Tories want to privatise schools. They want to pay teachers less. They want to show off.

They create a problem that isn’t there by cherry-picking data and then solve that fake problem with solutions that benefit themselves and no-one else.

One example will suffice here to back up what we’re saying: Teach First. This is a McKinsey idea. It recruits graduates and places them with little training in deprived schools. It is supposed to be about improving things but let us ask you this: How can placing undertrained newbies in schools of economic disadvantage possibly be improving things? How can a 15-week course as opposed to a whole-year PGCE improve the quality of teaching? No bank would recruit staff with less training over those with more. And no bank would then place the 15-weekers in the most challenging positions – so why on earth is that okay in schools?

The Tory White Paper then is the battle cry in an ideological conflict. And Barber, McKinsey, the consultants and vulture philanthropists are the real drivers.

This isn’t systematic. This is a coup.

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