Ontario's education system needs a re-think and Sir Michael Barber is the man to do it

  • National Newswatch

Premier Kathleen Wynne meet Sir Michael Barber. He knows how to fix your education system. He has done it before.Barber is a professor at London's Institute for Education and former head of Global Education at the international counseling firm McKinsey & Company. He has helped governments of emerging and high-performing economies push through obstacles and deliver on policy goals. He is so driven by tables, charts and graphs of reliable outcome data that the U.K. media have written him off as boring.His modus operandi is to make education work efficiently, to cut out the middle man and partner with those who can deliver innovative curriculum and assessment reforms on the ground and who are happy to be transparent about the processes and held accountable for the results. He does not believe that school systems, even provincial state monopolies, are sacrosanct. He does not believe high performing systems have nothing left to deliver on.He is not, however, just another right-wing educational ideologue.He was head of the Delivery Unit for U.K. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.  He is a long-time member of the Labour party, and a former union man.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed him as an advisor at last January's federal cabinet retreat.  Can you spell impeccable liberal-left credentials?Yet Barber himself spells out with great clarity the solution for problems facing contemporary education systems.“School systems will have to innovate and innovation will come from the private sector or public-private partnerships, rather than government,” he says.Those words might not exactly be music to the ears of Premier Wynne, who has tightly sealed off the education sector from any meaningful conversation about delivery and standards.  Key constituents such as students, parents, neighborhood communities, businesses and employers stand at a distance from major decisions like school board closures and cuts in special education funding.  The arms-length Education Quality and Accountability Office, a Crown agency that manages standardized testing in Ontario, has been hampered by union action and delays in reporting.  It's difficult to get accurate information on Ontario's enrolment statistics, spending and school performance without turning to independent sources.What we do know for certain is that during the past decade, the number of K-12 students in Ontario public schools has dropped by 100,000.  Spending, meanwhile, has increased by eight billion dollars over the same period.  Certain international measures show the quality of Ontario publication is declining.Despite Premier Wynne's misgivings, then, the need is evident for someone to begin serious upgrading of the province's public education performance.  The argument is compelling for it to be someone such as Barber, who puts confidence in standards rather than structures.Barber is well known for his habit of commissioning independent, open and practical research (like the Cardus Education Survey, which regularly reports on the educational outcomes of graduates of all school sectors nationally).   He has built significant education reforms on reliable data and effective monitoring. His approach is to set clear targets and enable governments to stick to them. He believes in the importance of performance – not ideological – measurements and partnerships with those better able to innovate in delivery of public sector services.So, Premier Wynne, meet Sir Michael.  Keep his name on speed dial for your next cabinet retreat on education.  If need be, call your good friend, Prime Minister Trudeau, for a reference.  After all, he brought Barber in for advice on improving the efficiency of services for a federal government facing a debt of more than $600 billion.  Can the problems besetting Ontario public education be more difficult to fix than that?Michael van Pelt is the President of Cardus, a public policy think tank. A graduate of McMaster University and the London School of Economics, he has more than 20 years of experience in public life and has authored and co-authored numerous articles ranging from religion and public life to economics and government policy.Beth Green is the Program Director of Education at Cardus. She previously directed the National Centre for Christian Education at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom where she also ran the Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD). Dr. Green has a DPhil from the University of Oxford; she is also a graduate of Cambridge and London Universities and took the Hans Prize in Education for her MA thesis in Education Management.