Mad Professor Goes Global

Sir Michael Barber was known as New Labour’s "mad professor" and was the architect of the literacy and numeracy strategies during the government’s first term. Later, when he worked as the head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit for Tony Blair, he was responsible for creating top-down targets across the public sector. Despite this, he remained relatively unknown, except among educators who loathed the Whitehall commands during this era. In terms of domestic influence, Barber was a pivotal figure for New Labour. He helped draft Blair’s first education speech during the 1994 leadership contest and published The Learning Game in 1996, virtually a handbook for Labour education ministers. The phrase "standards, not structures" was his, as was the focus on failure: failing councils, schools, and pupils.

While newspapers hardly mentioned Barber, he has since become a global figure. After joining McKinsey as their "head of global education practice", he established a US Education Delivery Unit, co-authored books exploring the successful features national education systems share, and co-chaired a taskforce in Pakistan that established "national standards" in basic subjects. Barber is now becoming the chief education adviser to Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, which operates in over 70 countries.

Barber is an idealist, who as a young man taught in Zimbabwe when it seemed like a great hope for African development. He believes that innovation will come from the private sector or public-private partnerships, rather than government. This is because, sometimes, serious capital investment is necessary for innovation, and in our modern, transparent age, taking risks is more difficult for governments. Barber nearly became the top civil servant in Michael Gove’s education department this year, but declined the position because he believes that England is too small.

Although he applies a four-point scale to education systems- poor, fair, good, great- it would be unfair to characterize Barber as a soulless automaton who lacks humanity. He is a nuanced character. He was born into a prosperous Quaker family in Liverpool and attended a Quaker boarding school. His father, who refused military service in the Second World War, went on to become the chair of Oxfam.

Despite his restless energy, he exudes a sense of complete comfort and serenity within his own skin. When others dismiss him as a mere "bean-counter," he retorts, "What’s wrong with counting beans?" Even critics who question his ideas have no real animosity towards him. According to Estelle Morris, a former Labour education secretary, he is "the least Machiavellian person I’ve ever known." In the New Labour era, he was one of the few individuals who got along with both Blair and Gordon Brown. Peter Hennessy, a professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary University, describes his ability to navigate the treacherous waters of Downing Street as "nearly miraculous."

After high school, he majored in history at Oxford University, where he served as the president of Queen’s College JCR (student union). Afterward, he worked as a teacher, educating students in Watford, Hertfordshire, and Zimbabwe before returning to England to join the education department at the National Union of Teachers. He also became a member of the Labour Party in Hackney, East London, which was ruled by a "loony left" council at the time. He eventually became the chair of the council’s education committee and ran for the Labour Party in Michael Heseltine’s Henley constituency during the 1987 election. However, he broadcast cricket scores from his loudhailer rather than promoting party policies due to the election’s unequal footing. This was the end of his political aspirations, as he was far too diffident and professorial in his demeanor to stand a good chance of success. He left Hackney council in 1990 to take on a senior role in the NUT.

He assisted in organizing the union’s boycott of tests in 1993, citing flawed government implementation as the primary reason. However, he became increasingly uneasy with the NUT’s opposition to testing on principle. Later that year, he left the NUT to pursue a professorship at Keele University and announced in the Times that the union had to select between accountability and oblivion. "Their position," he explains, "was to say to the government that, if you give us more money, we might improve the system. They should have said that we’re going to improve the system and then you’ll see we’re worth investing in."

His beliefs made him a natural ally of New Labour and an obvious pick to serve as David Blunkett’s adviser while he was Shadow Education Secretary. The two men conversed frequently when Barber joined a "hit squad" established by the Tories to correct the "failing" Hackney Downs comprehensive’s issues. Despite the school having passionate supporters, it was recommended for closure, a proposal that Barber, the only squad member who was a local resident, publicly endorsed. "The stand we took on Hackney Downs," he later wrote, "became a foundation of New Labour’s education policy."

Regarding the literacy and numeracy strategies, he acknowledges that he underestimated their negative consequences on teachers. "I believed that being able to perform their jobs better and seeing students in their classes doing better would have a transformative effect. I assumed that teachers would react positively," he remarks. However, for someone who spent six years inside classrooms and eight years in the largest teachers’ union, this appears to be a peculiar misunderstanding on his part. Although he is a good listener, he is prone to hearing what he wants to hear, and his values stem from religious convictions (which he no longer formally adheres to), making him overly confident in his beliefs. "I always enjoyed bouncing ideas around with him," says Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer of Birmingham and Barber’s predecessor at Keele. "However, I could never be as convinced as he is that my ideas are right."

This is, perhaps, the nature of government, where, as Barber observes, the unforgiving media glare leaves no room for doubt or hesitation. If one of his former colleagues’ assertions that he created simple solutions that provided the headlines ministers wanted is correct, it’s difficult to argue that schools weren’t pulled in the right direction, even if it was done clumsily. Although some of his friends expressed disappointment when he moved to the private sector (Barber explains that he needed money after one of his daughters had a serious accident), they are not keen on criticizing him publicly.

Barber maintains that Pearson is doing essential work in the developing world, where the private sector is often the best hope as government strength is limited. He believes that he is still fulfilling his mission of making a difference. Since he was always among the least jaded New Labour supporters, it’s only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.


  • codyyoung

    Cody Young is an educational blogger. Cody is currently a student at the University of Utah pursuing a degree in communications. Cody has a passion for writing and sharing knowledge with others.



Cody Young is an educational blogger. Cody is currently a student at the University of Utah pursuing a degree in communications. Cody has a passion for writing and sharing knowledge with others.

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