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We had a Lot of Opposition

Sir Michael Barber, a former Chief Adviser on Delivery to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice, and a Visiting Professor and a member of the HSE International Advisory Committee told HSE News Service if we can compare institutions with their graduates’ Unified State Exam results, how to pay teachers bonuses, and what mistakes British reformers made and how Russia can avoid repeating these.

Michael Barber is one of the world’s leading specialists in educational reforms and public policy. In schools at the end of 1990s he implemented a ‘competency building approach’ based on children’s capacity to use their knowledge in practice, and also carried out projects for centralization of education quality management. Thanks to him a new system of evaluating educational institutions was developed, where first, each pupil’s progress was measured and then the entire school’s effectiveness. Furthermore, as the research showed very poor literacy levels for children, Michael Barber introduced special courses in primary schools to improve the situation.

His advice on public policy and education has been sought by governments in over 30 countries including Australia, the USA, Russia, Estonia and Hong Kong and by major international organizations including the OECD, The World Bank and the IMF. As a McKinsey expert, Lord Barber was also co-author of the international benchmarking study ‘How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top’. So, what does he think about Russian educational reforms?

– Sir Michael, this is not your first visit to Russia. How would you describe our educational reforms – conducted by Vladimir Filippov a few years ago, and now – by Andrey Fursenko?

I know both ministers – Vladimir Filippov and Andrey Fursenko, but it’s hard to say who has been more successful. On the whole, I think the latest educational reforms were quite positive. Russia is a big country, and the effectiveness of the reforms depends on local public administration. Both earlier, when I first visited your country, and now, the implementation varies in different provinces.

The interaction of the Unified State Exam is a really important step forward. Its implementation is not perfect, but in the future it will enable Russia to compare  performance in different provinces.

– Some of graduates’ Unified State Exam results were really dubious this year – especially in regional universities. Is it possible to completely avoid corruption while conducting such exams? If it isn’t, should we say that  reform is useless?

The problem is that if you wait for corruption to disappear completely, you’ll never start the reform process. I think there should be some independent agency to analyze unified exam results in different provinces, and then publish a report so that everybody could say, for example, that 60 provinces do a good job, and the other 15 a bad one. Maybe, it would shame the local government in these 15 regions and pressure it to change the process.

– This year a league table of higher education institutions was published. It’s based on the graduates’ GPA (grade point average) for the Unified Exam. If a university attracts graduates with low GPA, is the quality of its education low as well?

Universities with the best reputation can set higher entrance requirements, but it should not be the only indicator used to evaluate the institution. More important is what happens to students after they get their degree. It’s quite sensible to look at entry requirement, but after a graduate goes to university, we need to look at the quality of teaching at the university, the quality of research, and the progress each student makes.

There are some universities in the world where the entrance requirements are quite low, but the quality of teaching is good. What we’ve done in England – we have all the students in the country surveyed, and then the results of the universities are compared. In addition to this, in the rankings we take into account what students themselves say about the quality of teaching in their universities. Such a system is not perfect, but that’s what we use.

– And what about other Russian reforms? For instance, now in Russian schools a formula for funding is calculated. As a result, smaller schools are being closed. Is it right when a school budget depends on the number of pupils?

I think, basically, formula funding is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be based only on pupil numbers. It is also important what challenges a school can give to its students – the world’s best systems use this measure.

All countries have a problem with schools where there are not enough pupils. And it’s not sensible for the system to keep all the schools open – you have to close some of them . The question is – which schools do you keep open? Unfortunately, sometimes local authorities close good ones before they get really empty.

In England we are closing some schools because they are not performing very well. And we also have been opening new schools, where the population is growing, for example, in some areas of London. But I think Russia has a bigger challenge because its population is declining dramatically.

– There are a lot of teachers and professors in Russia who don’t like the latest educational reforms, and as the rector of The Higher School of Economics Yaroslav Kuzminov once said – ‘it’s impossible to conduct reform without the agreement of the professional community’. What do you think about that?

All around the world, not just in Russia, when big reforms are conducted, there are some people who don’t like them. That’s human nature. Most people in any organization are afraid of change. So, in the education system, when the government proposes radical change, some of the teachers, and sometimes many of them, are against that change. But if you try to persuade everyone – you’ll have to  wait forever.  

         On the other hand, and where I agree with Yaroslav Kuzminov, after you start the reform, you need to persuade more and more teachers to support it. Otherwise, you won’t make any progress.

– And how did you cope with public discontent while conducting your educational reforms in England?

We did have a lot of opposition. And one thing is important - it must be clear what is negotiable, and what you believe needs to be done. The teachers are not the only interested party, there are also parents and communities, and sometimes they have different points of view. You should define which elements of the reform are really needed. And you have to keep the dialogue open, communicating with all the stakeholders.

There is a whole section about it in my book on the history of educational reforms and public delivery in England during the last 20 years, which will be published in Russia this year (Instruction to Deliver: Fighting to Reform Britain's Public Services (Methuen 2008)‘one of the best books about British Government for many years’, the Financial Times – HSE News Service).

– Which achievements do you consider the most important?

I think the improvements we made in primary schools in the late 1990s, in children’s reading, writing and mathematics. In that period England went from 17th to 3rd in the world educational institutions rankings. So that changed dramatically.

– And did you make any mistakes?

Yes, we’ve made many mistakes, of course. One of them is that we didn’t realize early enough how important the quality of communication with teachers is. We should have done it more and better.

We also had some policies that were badly implemented. In 2000 and 2001, after the first big round of improvements in primary schools, we started talking about secondary schools. But we hadn’t persuaded teachers that the primary school reforms were necessary. In 2005 and 2006 we began to broaden the agenda further, and we lost our clear focus on the most important things. All this is explained in my book.

– You have been quoted as saying ‘the quality of the system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’. The Deputy Minister of Education of Russia, Isaac Kalina, said in a recent interview that the phrase must have been translated into Russian inaccurately. Because thanks to synergy, each system can perform better than its individual elements, can’t it?

In fact, this phrase belongs to a Korean educator; it is a quotation from the McKinsey report 2007 about the best world school systems. But we don’t talk about an individual teacher; we talk about teachers in general. And as the job of the system is to make the most of the teachers and to improve their performance, I agree that the system is important. And I agree that the way the system enables the teachers to succeed is important as well. So in that sense, it’s right.

But even if the system is really successful, if teachers themselves don’t have the right personal qualities and don’t meet academic standards, things will always be limited.

What is the challenge for Russia now? The country needs to do more to get some of the best students to consider teaching as their career.

And you will never have a great system through just finding exceptional teachers because there are not so many of them. The old-fashioned education systems, like Great Britain in 1950s, depended on great individual teachers, and of course these people are really important, but that’s not enough to educate everybody.

Ideally, you need a combination of good teachers and a well-managed system, like in Singapore, in Finland and in some parts of Canada. So, both parameters matter.

– The salary for teachers in Russia doesn’t help to attract the brightest and the best to this profession now.  The government thinks that one of the ways to solve this problem is the new formula for funding, according to which the best teachers can get bonuses of up to 30% of their salary (the bonuses are awarded by the school board). What do you think about such a system? How is it doing in other countries?

Most systems in the world don’t pay bonuses because it’s a difficult area to get right. It’s quite easy for the bonus system to have more negative effects than positive ones. If one teacher is financially rewarded, there will be many others frustrated or angry. If the reward is seen to be given to wrong people, other people will think the system is unfair. And if there is only certain amount of money, some teachers will receive the reward, while others won’t even if they did as good a job. So the design of the reward system is very important.

There are 2 big school systems that are experimenting with rewards – I think quite well. One of them is Singapore and the other is New York. In NYC, for example, the system rewards whole school for improvement, and then at the school level they decide how to distribute it. So the system isn’t deciding which teacher gets the bonus, it’s deciding which school. And then at the school level the principal, working with a committee of teachers decides how to share it out. That kind of system can work, I think.

– Here the question arises; does the central department work effectively? You said that it is one of the best school systems characteristics in your recent report in the Higher School of Economics…

Yes, and good political leadership is needed to do 3 the most important functions really well. One of them is strategy – they must be clear about the direction, not just for 1-2 years, but for 4-5 years. Secondly, they need to have good performance management, knowing how the system is doing. Thirdly, human capital management: they need to recruit the right people into teaching and school management.

And one more key function - a fair allocation of recourses. The Russian federal government, by the way, spends a lot of money on education, but the problem is how well this money is used. Many countries in the world struggle with their bureaucratic and old-fashioned central government departments, including England, the US, and Canada…

And this is one of the reasons for Russia to be part of the global conversation. There is not a lesson your country should be learning from the others, it should be part of the global dialogue about education systems.

– All around the world directors of educational departments and heads of governments are responsible for reforms, but we cannot minimize the role of experts who help them as well. How did you become an advisor to the Prime Minister? And what do you think will be written about you in history books in 100-200 years?

Lots of ministers have somebody answering the questionof what we should we do, not many ministers ask how we should get it done (which is more important). Working with Britain’s Prime Minister, I was focusing not just on creating the strategy and policies, but also on how they could be implemented.

I never thought I’d be an advisor to the Prime Minister – studying at college, I didn’t even know who he was. So, it was… a lucky accident. However, as a student, I was interested in politics, and I did think one day I would get involved in it. 

I’ll be glad if there is nothing in history books about me at all.  However, I was pleased to find out that Tony Blair mentioned our work in his memoirs published this year. But all this matters only if, thanks to our actions, the educational system is really getting better.


Maria Saltykova, HSE News Service