Sir Michael Barber was announced as a government adviser on skills reform implementation by the chancellor in November, but little is known about what his work involves. He talks to Shane Chowen about why he’s taken on the unpaid role and what he hopes to achieve when it ends next month.
When the chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in his autumn statement that he had appointed Sir Michael Barber to advise “on the implementation of our skills reform programme”, the sector held its breath to once again be under the spotlight of yet another major review.
He was brought on to, in the Treasury’s words, “help maximise the impact” of the government’s various skills reform policies; namely T Levels, higher technical qualifications, the lifelong loan entitlement and skills bootcamps.
Little else was said. In fact Barber’s appointment was the only thing November’s autumn statement had to say about the FE and skills system at all.
And it didn’t take long for sector lobbyists to begin to make their case for what “the Barber review” should say.
Was his appointment a smokescreen?
Barber’s appointment raised a few eyebrows. It was nothing personal, but next to a boost to the schools budget that restored real terms funding to 2010 levels, some saw the appointment of a new skills adviser as a smokescreen to hide the lack of a similar funding settlement for FE.
But Barber is clear – the sector doesn’t need another review, as he told the chancellor when he was asked for his advice on skills reform just before the November autumn statement.
“I said I was happy, very happy, to do that. But I didn’t want to write another report because we’ve had reports every few years.”
He’s not wrong. A list of familiar namesf ollows: Auger, Sainsbury, Wolf, Richard, Foster, Leitch.
“I said, what you need is advice on how to make happen all the agenda that is already in the pipeline.”
So there will be no “Barber Review of Skills Reform” to add to the collection. He isn’t even being paid for his advice and confirms that he has only agreed to advise until the end of March.
“This is only a small part of my work at the moment. I’m doing it voluntarily, so haven’t got endless hours, but I really want to help get this right.”
Putting right historic wrongs
Barber’s expertise lies in “deliverology”. He’s published several books on how governments get good policy done successfully, and why they don’t.
He’s credited with setting up the first prime minister’s delivery unit at Number 10 in Tony Blair’s second term to track progress towards policy objectives.
Even after leaving government, his phone number never seems to be far away from the desks of the government of the day looking for advice.
In 2017 he wrote a report for the Treasury on achieving value money in public services and in 2021 was asked for his advice on delivery of government services in the aftermath of the pandemic.
So why he did say yes when the chancellor called asking him to advise two cabinet ministers on a voluntary basis?
Barber reveals that he views the skills agenda as more than simply implementing some topical policy reforms, but putting right some historic wrongs.
“I know that for 150 years, we’ve not focused as we should have done on skills. I know that in the Blair years, we didn’t get as far as we should have got on the skills agenda.”
A chance to do something ‘dramatic’
That sentiment will be familiar for those working in the sector. Barber’s experience on implementation has told him that we have – right now – a unique opportunity to get reform done properly.
“For the first time in history we have a prime minister, a chancellor of the exchequer, a secretary of state for education, and a skills minister, all of whom want to prioritise skills within the education area, and even across government. That’s an alignment that’s never happened before.”
This “vertical alignment” is complemented by a “horizontal alignment” of officials across Number 10, the Treasury and DfE, as well as an “exciting” policy agenda.
Throw all that together, Barber says, and “that gives you the opportunity to do something dramatic”.
His sights are set long-term, but there’s an immediacy to his sentiment. “If we want to catch up as a country with the leading providers of skills around the world… that is probably a 10-year challenge. But you’ve got to get started and this is the time to get started.”
Barber draws a parallel with the “transformation” of pre-school education under Blair in the late 90s. “In 1995 Britain was one of the worst performers in Europe. By 2007, when Blair stepped down, it was one of the European leaders. So we can definitely do this with skills.
“It’s about creating not just a government implementation agenda, it’s about creating a movement with people from across this field believing they are part of a movement for change.
Barber is now three months in, and has potentially only five more weeks left .
He steers away from questions on structures, referring instead to “refinements to the delivery mechanisms” – making what we have now work better.
It’s a useful insight to understand the angle of the advice he is giving to ministers and officials.
DfE needs better (and readily available) data
He recognises that provider leaders have been exhausted by debilitating cuts in their resources, but argues that’s not a good enough reason to get behind reform.
“It’s been a tough decade for FE. I see this all over the world. The barrier to successful delivery of some ambitious goal is often in people’s heads. They’re not quite sure they can do it. One of the things I want to do is inject belief and ambition and for that we need a movement, something that people can get behind and are excited about.”
Funding, specifically lack of, has dominated the FE and skills sector’s narrative for more than a decade. I ask how leaders can be expected to be excited about a vision for ten years’ time, when they can’t find teachers for courses today.
“We can’t stop thinking about how to change the system over a five-to-ten-year period because there are pressures on expenditure.
“I’m not saying we don’t need more money to do a ten-year strategy. I’m saying, let’s get on with the job.”
Data seems to play a big role in Barber’s thinking. The Department for Education publishes a lot of data, but he questions whether it’s “good data” and argues that much it isn’t made available fast enough.
“Until recently I cycled quite a lot. As I’m cycling I can see my heart rate, my cadence, my speed, my power output. All of that I can measure in real time.
“After somebody finishes a [skills] bootcamp, it’s weeks before somebody at the Department for Education knows about it. Why can’t they know on the day they finish? It’s not that hard. I’m pushing them [DfE and Treasury] – they’re getting some good data. But they need to get more and get it faster.”
There’s already some element of in- year performance tracking – but that’s mostly checking up on providers’ contract performance for funding purposes. “
One of the problems in big government systems is that if you don’t know, in detail, what’s happening at the frontline, you tend to do blanket policy. Once you’ve got good real time data, you can be more precise and tailored,” he says.
“If you’re learning fast enough at the centre then you can make minor tweaks that improve implementation.”
‘I want us to say: we’ve got it right’
With Barber’s brains and experience in public service reform, some may be disappointed that a more substantial or tangible piece of work wasn’t offered to him. Advice is, after all, only advice.
He ends with an ask on those he is advising: “I would like to see this year and next real progress towards a ten-year strategy, at the end of which we would have a workforce whose skills we were proud of. We could hold our heads high in the world and say, we may not have got this right in the 19th or 20th century, but we’ve got it right now.”
With a focus on implementation, milestones, measuring inputs and outputs, a “movement” and “tweaks and refinements”, Barber’s made it clear that dramatic changes to skills policy and structures are not in his brief.
Optimistically, this could open the door for a cross-government shift in pace and phasing as it takes stock of what it knows is really working, what isn’t, and what it just doesn’t know enough about.
Advice from an expert such as Barber is great cover to delay things, drop things or to “tweak and refine”.
But there will undoubtedly be those who take a more cynical view; that next to a relatively whopping boost in school funding and coming up to a likely change in government, something had to be said about skills so people still believe the government thinks it important.