June 2016


  • Game theory
    Schools and colleges can learn lessons about leadership, trust and making the most of opportunities from the way that our elite sports teams are run, says Malcolm Trobe. More
  • The diamond standard
    ASCL Specialist Suzanne O’Farrell offers top tips to help schools inject more challenge into the curriculum and ensure that the latest wave of reforms translates into higher standards. More
  • A champion for wellbeing
    Amid growing concern over student mental health, one school has taken the radical step of bringing a doctor on board, as Assistant Headteacher Janet Goodliffe explains. More
  • The details man
    The new Foundation for Leadership in Education will play a vital role in ensuring that heads are equipped and ready to drive the next phase of reform, says Sir Michael Barber. He talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Engage, enable, enrich
    To forge the next step on the journey from good to great, the dynam ics of the education system must change. This was the key message from ASCL President Allan Foulds in his ‘eng age, enable and enrich’ keynote to conference. More
  • Mutual friends
    A new website is helping to highlight good practice in independent and state school partnerships and encouraging others to get involved. Members of the Independent State Schools Partnership (ISSP) Forum Deborah Leek-Bailey and Julie Robinson explain the thinking. More
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The new Foundation for Leadership in Education will play a vital role in ensuring that heads are equipped and ready to drive the next phase of reform, says Sir Michael Barber. He talks to Julie Nightingale.

The details man

A critic once dismissed Sir Michael Barber, Chairman of the new Foundation for Leadership in Education, as ‘a bean counter’, one of those people fixated on the minutiae of costs and practical details at the expense of vision and inspiration.

It was meant as an insult but he is quite pleased with the epithet.

“Ha, I’m proud of counting beans,” he chuckles. “‘Bean counters’ is just a derogatory way of talking about people who take the data seriously. I take the data seriously, I take public money seriously – you have to do that in government.”

He has spent much of his career striving to persuade others to do the same and focus on the facts of a situation and identify ‘what works’, rather than be sidetracked by ideological notions of what is right or good.

After working as a teacher in Watford and following spells with the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and as a Hackney councillor in the late 1980s, he found his spiritual home with New Labour, becoming first adviser to Education Secretary David Blunkett from 1997 to 2001 and then head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) under Tony Blair from 2001 to 2005, devoted to ensuring that the Labour government’s visions became reality by monitoring performance across education, health, transport and crime against government-set targets.

‘Delivery’ is another key Barber tenet and it is one of the flaws in the plethora of inspirational texts on leadership, he says, that insufficient emphasis is put on getting things done.

“The classic leadership text in British literature is the great Henry V speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt – ‘We band of brothers…’ – and it’s a wonderful speech. But what I always say to people is I bet you Henry V had a handful of people who made sure that every single soldier had the right number of arrows in their quiver and had boots they could walk in. Somebody has to do the logistics. Inspirational leadership and counting beans go together; they are not opposites.”

‘Fantastic leader’

Tony Blair, who understood the need to focus on ‘what works’, was a fantastic leader to work for, he says.

“[The unit] became a globally recognised model of how to get things done in government. And working with my team in the unit and with Tony Blair on that was memorable, though very, very hard work sometimes. But when you saw the results – trains running on time more often, crime cut by 30 per cent, waiting times met. And then improvements in the education system, especially the London Challenge [the turnaround programme for the capital’s underperforming schools], you just think it was worth it – I had a wonderful team, I loved every minute of it.”

Sir Michael, 60, left the Civil Service in 2005 to join management consultants McKinsey & Company, advising education bodies worldwide, including in the US and Pakistan, on improvement strategies. In 2011, he joined the education company Pearson as chief education adviser, although at one point he considered an approach by the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove to join him at the DfE. He declined in the end, although there was “dialogue” about it, he says, and he has “a lot of time and respect for Michael Gove”.

In his new role, which he will take on alongside his work for Pearson, he will be the independent chair of the foundation, the new body being established jointly by ASCL, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the National Governors’ Association (NGA).

Devolved model

The system must have a body specifically to oversee leadership development if the devolved model of education that has been evolving since the 1980s is to succeed ultimately, he says.

“We have an education system in England where the management responsibility and a lot of decisions are delegated to the school level and taken by the headteacher. That’s been emerging since 1988. If your model is devolved responsibility then the quality of leadership is obviously tremendously important to the quality of the school system. That’s the underlying premise. If you design that kind of system you must be serious about ensuring a supply of good, high-quality school leaders and leadership development is a critical issue.”

The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) fulfilled the role for more than ten years after it was set up by the Blair government in 2000 and its model was taken up by education systems around the world.

The new foundation is, in many ways, its natural successor, although with some important differences, chief among them that it will not be funded by the taxpayer. But it is in line with the strategy pursued by successive governments, says Sir Michael, of aiming to drive improvement – ‘unleash greatness’ in his own phrase – by handing responsibility for it to heads themselves.

“Government can’t drive the next phase of reform, it has to be led by leaders themselves – that’s what [ministers] say.”

The foundation is a statement that the profession is assuming responsibility for developing the school leaders of the future and doing “the job that needs doing”, to improve the education system in England. And because the funding will be raised largely independently of government, the profession itself can decide what leadership development looks like.

“It will be owned and delivered by the profession itself and that’s a very radical idea,” he says. “If we get it right it will be transformative.”

Over-burdened role

One hope is that the foundation will be able to improve the perception of headship as an over-burdened role, an image that has persisted for years, deterring some able candidates from even applying for the top job.

“It is definitely about making the profession more attractive because it will make the profession more obviously in control of its own destiny,” he says. “Last time I looked at the research, if you were a deputy head or aspiring leader in a senior position in school, the sharpness of the accountability and the pressure of work did look off-putting but what you found was that, when people moved into acting roles as heads and were doing the job, they found it was very exciting – as a head you can do the things you want to do.

“One of the things the foundation will need to do is to persuade people to overcome those anxieties. They are very real, not just in teaching. Taking over an institution is daunting and we need to give people the necessary confidence and the skills to do it,” he says, adding that making the job more appealing to all would also help to influence the diversity of people who become school leaders.

As an independent body, the foundation will have more leeway than the National College did to challenge government but Sir Michael insists that it will leave campaigning to ASCL and the other partners.

“The unions and heads associations are there to campaign on the issues they choose to campaign on and the foundation should not cut across that work. The unions are there to do what their members through the normal routes want but the foundation needs to focus on giving people the skills to be successful heads.

He adds, “I’m not saying that the foundation will always simply agree with [government] – there should be a dialogue between the foundation and government about what it means to be a good head, what skills you need, how you can be successful entering the post, how you can develop, opportunities you get as you stay in the post for longer. But if you are ASCL president for example, you don’t want the foundation to take on a role that cuts across the association’s responsibilities.”

The Foundation for Leadership in Education will:

  • develop and promote leadership pathways, standards and profiles
  • build a suite of developmental leadership standards reflecting the different stages of the leadership pathway
  • quality assure and where appropriate accredit leadership-development programmes