Schools of thought

The Learning Game

December 20, 1996

If Tony Blair's warm endorsement of this book is anything to go by, this may be one of the most influential works on education this decade. But, although full of imaginative proposals, the advice "to politicians with a passion for education" is ultimately incoherent. For there are two Michael Barbers writing, and they are at odds with each other.

"New" Barber is the imaginative thinker, excited about the potential for liberation of educational supply and the unleashing of demand. "Old" Barber is still at heart the National Union of Teachers official. New Barber realises that grand "system" will not solve the educational crisis; indeed, it may have caused it. He looks to the potential of the spontaneous order (or "chaos" as he calls it), where the creativity of individuals is unleashed, acting on their own incentives, needs, aspirations and tacit knowledge: "Given this unstoppable intellectual surge towards chaos, one has to ask why people in education in the late 1980s and 1990s were so obsessed with structures. It is time to recognise that reforming structures will not bring about real change, least of all in education, where quality depends so heavily on a chaotic myriad of personal interactions. We need to understand that chaos matters too."

Half the time Barber is persuaded of this, half the time he yearns for old familiar territory. For example, his ideas on the "reconstruction" of the teaching profession to suit the changing circumstances of the "learning society" exhibit the imaginative thinker at his finest: "(Teachers) might work in a school, but increasingly schools will open for longer hours, providing a much wider range of learning options. Teachers might work in an out-of-school study centre. They might provide individual tuition to pupils and their families ... Groups of teachers might work in the equivalent of consulting companies, and put together a portfolio of activities."

Teacher education will be similarly transformed, with "apprentice" teachers getting paid and immediately working in schools, completely replacing the current entry channels through higher education.

But how does Barber propose to arrive at this desirable flexibility? He thinks a "learning council" will effect the transformation. But why should such a body, made up, in large part, of teachers, and "other partners in the education process" go for this wholesale "reconstruction"? The chief mechanism that will emerge from the learning council, Barber says, is the five-yearly teacher "MOT". Teachers failing this will be struck off the register. Can one really imagine such a body sanctioning a thorough inspection of teachers' skills and achievements when so much is at stake for them and their colleagues?

Similar problems emerge with Barber's millennial curriculum. He wants everyone to learn the basics of literacy, numeracy and technological capability, as well as to be immersed in our culture, learn thinking and reasoning skills and be environmentally concerned. As far as thumbnail sketches go, it is reminiscent of Thatcher's curriculum plans. Therein should lie a lesson for Barber. For, as he jostles for position to influence the national curriculum when Sir Ron Dearing's five-year moratorium on changes comes to an end, he must realise that he is not alone. Others are jostling too, with competing visions of the curriculum, perhaps a preference for the status quo, or the status quo ante. This controversy will lead to an overprescriptive curriculum, exactly as Thatcher's proposals led to one. Again there is the problem of incentives - this time, there is too much at stake to avoid the destructive politicisation of the curriculum.

Finally, New and Old Barber coexist most unhappily when contemplating lifelong learning. The key to unlocking this revolution in schools is the "individual learning promise". This ensures parents meet with their child's teacher every six months and agree targets and specify responsibilities. The revolution he envisages is clear: a "reengineering" of education, "tossing aside" the assumptions that students learn better if they are grouped together in same-age classes, that one teacher for 30 children is the only sensible ratio, that information technology is an add-on rather than fundamental to the learning process, and that learning has to finish once school-leaving age is reached. But how can the "promise" possibly bring any of these about? Clearly what Barber has in mind is that the improved "demand" of parents, once they are reinvested with responsibility for their children's education, will lead to desirable changes in supply. But does the "promise" really have enough teeth? Barber suggests schools will "guarantee" that every child becomes literate, numerate and technologically competent. But what incentives are there for a school to ensure this, if the ultimate sanction Barber envisages is the child being held back until these are achieved? That is not the sort of guarantee we expect in terms of other goods and services. What we seek is a guarantee with teeth - a money-back guarantee. But this is not possible under Barber's system, because no money changes hands.

As Barber moves to consider further and higher education, however, a proposal emerges that, if taken to its logical conclusion, could solve this problem of incentives. This is the individual learning account, in which all adults can invest in their own learning, accruing matching contributions from employers, and, possibly, government. But why encourage this genuine expression of educational demand only once people have left school? What is there in the arguments for learning society that supports this bifurcation between an initial period of compulsory schooling and lifetime learning? The principle of the account could instead be extended to cover everyone from school age upwards. Instead of the weak "promise", all parents could have a "lifelong individual fund for education", in which government cash allocated to children's education was invested - roughly Pounds 2,000 a year plus capital costs. Parents would draw on these funds to pay for their children's education. Now this would give parents the responsibility Barber wants them to have and give schools the incentives to respond to their demand. Then the "reengineering" of the educational project could really take place, without any requirement for the collective agreement of the vested interests who would stand in the way of any change.

Perhaps one of Barber's most telling examples is the description of a very successful research project at King's College, London, which raised attainments in science, mathematics and English, by 300 per cent for boys. Barber bemoans that there has been no national initiative to follow it up. But imagine any other industry where one business found that it could raise productivity by 300 per cent with hardly any increase in resources. Other businesses would fall over themselves to emulate this technique. What schools and universities lack is not a government-enforced "national initiative" to force them to follow best practice, but simple incentives that enable other businesses to seek improvement.

The Learning Game is nearly there. New Barber recognises that dramatic change is desirable at all levels, and that this must come from liberating supply and demand. But he cannot quite bring himself to embrace the real incentives for change that the market can bring. For Old Barber still believes that exhortation from the centre will provide enough incentives for educational improvement, that the previously stubborn vested interests will succumb to his charm. But exhortation alone will not work and I hope we do not have to endure another decade of educational reform to convince Barber of this unfortunate reality.

James Tooley is a research fellow, University of Manchester.

The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution

Author - Michael Barber
ISBN - 0 575 06364 5 and 06235 5
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 315

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.