Sunday, 1 January 2017

Neoliberalism - The Great Lefty Conspiracy

It's New Year's Day and I'm sat in a pub in Snowdownia. Surrounded by the natural beauty of this glorious landscape I'm attempting to finish a post that I've been meaning to write for a while. To give it some context, it stems from an exchange with one of Twitter's 'Edu Gurus' who claimed that neoliberalism's influence on education was nothing more than a progressive/ lefty conspiracy. I politely beg to differ.......

Neoliberalism has dominated political discourse since the 1980s and has had a devastating impact on many areas of social policy in the United Kingdom (Ball, 2009; Goodson, 2014). Broadly defined, neoliberalism is the belief in minimal state intervention, deregulation, privatisation and individualism (Hursh, 2007). The Laissez Faire economic approach underpins neoliberalism’s commitment to unrestricted and unregulated market economies.  Consequently, the state’s role in providing education, health and security is diminished as individuals are expected to provide for their own social needs (Mouffe, 2005; Davies and Bansel, 2007). This is the antithesis to ‘Civic Welfarism’ which focuses on ‘securing equity through developing approaches to collective rights and needs (e.g. education, health)’ (Gunter, 2016, p. 89). One needs only to look at the situation in the National Health Service where the number of contracts being outsourced to private companies has doubled in the past five years (Campbell, 2016). Similarly, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, has witnessed a steady and gradual handing-over of public-sector assets to private companies (Poyner, 2012). In education, government policy has been driven by a neoliberalist agenda and desire to transform education services into profit-making commodities (Apple, 2006; Davies and Bansel, 2007; Ball, 2009; Lakes and Carter; 2011; Goodson 2014). This has been reflected in the rapid growth in academies and free schools, whose lack of transparency and accountability has led to widespread criticism and has prompted some observers to suggest that they actually increase segregation and hinder social mobility (West, 2014; Benn and Downs, 2016).

According to Benn and Downs (2016), the marketisation of education has become more prevalent in recent years with education businesses permeating many aspects of policy and practice in the United Kingdom. Ball (2009, p. 86) has suggested that this is because ‘education businesses can sell school improvement – offering schools ways of accommodating themselves to the demands of state performativity and the production of new organisational identities’. These privately funded education businesses offer schools training, consultancy, interventions and a plethora of learning ‘solutions’ (Benn and Downs, 2016). A prime example can be seen within the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) marketplace. One of the leaders in this field is Frog Education Ltd. who claim they are ‘helping to re-shape school processes, not just creating efficiency, but improving outcomes’ ( However, schools are paying companies such as Frog Education Ltd. thousands of pounds per year even though the academic impact of using a VLE has not been widely researched (Demian and Morrice, 2012). The VLE market is but one small example, within one area of education, of how businesses are influencing practice in schools, often out of view from the public (Ball, 2009). 

Marketisation of education is by no means only restricted to the United Kingdom. Ball (2009) argues that international consultancy firms now have influence on educational policy on the world stage. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PWC), whose services are now offered worldwide and who have undertaken work for the World Bank and the European Union which has impacted upon education on a global scale (Ball, 2009). Not only are these multinational companies influencing educational policy but concerns have been raised about their financial transparency. Or indeed lack of. Pearson PLC. ( is one of the leading global educational businesses involved in publishing educational literature as well as providing assessment services for educational institutions and corporations. However, this Public Limited Company has been identified as one of many Financial Times Stock Exchange Companies (FTSE) who have used tax avoidance schemes to maximise profits (Tarek, 2015). It could be argued that profit-making organisations making so much money out of public services have a civic duty to contribute an equitable share back into the system. 

Ben and Downs (2016) argue that the global education reform movement (GERM) has been able to develop an enticing argument that only increased marketisation and competition can remedy failing public education across the world. This has led to a situation where policy is created in one country and then adopted by the ruling classes, vested interest groups and powerful political elites in another (Goodson, 2014). This has been notable between the United Kingdom and the United States where policy borrowing has been commonplace for many years and yet the respective educational systems remain largely unimpressive on an international stage (Benn and Downs, 2016; Whitty, 2016). One of the main problems is that many of the policies being initiated are ‘based on a mix of selective evidence, intuitive prejudice and corporate influence’ (Goodson, 2014, p. 774). Furthermore, globalised policy construction has allowed for corporate entry into the shaping of national curricula.

The marketisation of education has an enormous impact on the curriculum and severe consequences for learning and teaching (Ball, 2003). It has been argued by Davies and Bansel (2007) that the purpose of education has now been transformed to ensure children become dutiful subjects who are able to contribute to the knowledge economy. According to Ball (2009) the increase in private interventions has not had a positive impact on learning. If anything, the increased intervention is detrimental to the creation of a socially just educational system. Consequently, marketisation is increasing segregation in schools as they are placed into league tables and judged on every aspect of their provision (Coldron et al., 2010). While defendants of neoliberalism would argue that increased competition means greater choice for parents and pupils, in reality the main beneficiaries of the system are affluent middle-class families who are more likely to find ways of ensuring their children attend the higher achieving schools (Coldron et al., 2010). It has been argued that this segregation is fueling a social injustice and condemning some children to a sub-standard education (McLaren, 1998; Hargreaves, 2003; Benn and Downs, 2016). Indeed, ‘research consistently shows that reforms have failed to deliver on the promises of educational equity for students across social class, race, language, ethnicity, and disability’ (Gurn, 2011, p. 144).

Francis and Mills (2012) argue that within the neoliberalist educational landscape there is a real urgency to develop policy and practice that can contribute to socially just education. However, the idea of equality and social justice are at odds with neoliberal dogmas as individualism usurps collectivism (Adams, 2013). The obsession with judgements and measures is providing less time for teachers to provide opportunities for their pupils to become more creative and critical in their thinking and learning. Creativity and criticality are too often forced out of the curriculum in favour of subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as they make excellent bedfellows for neoliberalism and the drive towards a knowledge economy (McLaren, 1998; Adams, 2013). Shor (1992) argues that the curriculum is where a dominant culture or ideology can either be maintained or challenged. For neoliberalism, it would certainly appear that the curriculum ebbs towards the former. According to McLaren (1998, p. 6) this is geared towards ‘providing students with the requisite technical expertise to enable them to find a place within the corporate hierarchy’ (McLaren, 1998, p. 6). It has been suggested that one way to counter this development would be to develop a curriculum focusing on STEAM where the Arts are as equally as important as the sciences (BFI, 2016). Adams (2013) has suggested that by removing subjects that promote criticality and dissent, governments may very well be supressing democracy. One need only to look at the current provision for political education to see how it has moved away from a critical focus to something more akin to civic nationalism. A political education should not be 'good for the economy, but because it is the necessary foundation for the life of the citizen (Turner, 2009, p. 293).

The ideological assault on education has had alarming impact on teachers whose ‘dreams, desires and voices are often silenced’ (McLaren, 1998). Teachers’ autonomy has been undermined as they are forced to adopt curricula, pedagogies and assessments determined by someone else (Hursh, 2007). This erosion of teacher autonomy is having a significant impact on retention with more early-career teachers leaving the profession within five years than ever before (Benn and Downs, 2016). Goodson (2014) has argued that this has also led to teachers becoming more compliant and less radical in their pedagogical approach as teachers are expected to be apolitical rather than taking an open stand against inequality and injustice (McLaren, 1998). Throughout professionalised education, the role of the teacher has become one that is viewed through a neoliberalist discursive lens resulting in constant measuring and judgement of teaching practice and teacher ‘performativity’ (Benn and Downs, 2016). As Ball (2003, p. 217) explains ‘performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions’ (Ball, 2003, p.217). The result of increased performativity has led to a weakening of teachers’ powers which ultimately has a negative impact on children's learning (Apple, 2006).

It could also be argued that the competitive and individualistic nature of neoliberalism is being transferred to children in schools.  Throughout education children are encouraged to compete with each other through merit stickers, higher grades and academic and sporting awards (Kanpol, 1999). There are also external pressures from the inspectorate and league tables which are, often unknowingly, passed on from teachers to pupils. In a recent conference paper Burgess et al., (2016) suggested that offering direct financial incentives to children from disadvantaged backgrounds can help to improve their attainment in subjects such as mathematics and science. This approach is at one with neoliberalism by attaching monetary value to learning. Essentially this viewpoint further strengthens the arguments that ‘to support a market economy we need to encourage everyone to think of themselves as individuals who always act in ways that maximise their own interests’ (Apple, 2006, p. 23). Furthermore, it instils in young people an ideological view that the main purpose of education is an economic one. This model of education is very much based on creating workers who can contribute to the economy rather than thoughtful citizens who are more concerned with human wellbeing and environmental concerns (McLaren, 1998; Hursh, 2007).

One of the main achievements of neoliberalism has been its ability to convince people that there is no ideological alternative (Hursh, 2007). The neoliberalist model permeates many areas of educational policy and practice with ‘market fundamentalism and soulless standardisation’ having a hugely negative impact on childrens’ learning (Hargreaves, 2003, p. 160). To develop children's capacity to think critically can act as a buffer against ideological indoctrination. Criticality and creativity can also serve as ‘the antithesis of the crushing performativity and segregation of market-led education’ (Adams, 2013, p. 249). More importantly, however, developing children's political literacy can help them to realise that ‘even the world’s most dominant political ideologies can be challenged, and their actions are capable of making a positive difference’ (McLaren, 1998, p. 6).



  1. Great article, love the broadness of your well researched comments. I waivered slightly at the childrens' apostrophe s/ s apostrophe drama

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and write a comment! I blame spell checker :)

  2. An invaluable and much needed summary of where we're at and how we got here.

    More to the point to help us all decide if we really want to go THERE.

    Great too to see a rationale for the STEAM thinking that is going to be big in 2017.

    Just watch the neoliberal outriders like Policy Exchange (defiantly nonpolitical to preserve its charitable status, yet considered to be the least transparent think tank in a recent global survey), ResearchEd (A much needed movement with worthy aims and some fantastic front line teachers among its body led by the Pied Piper himself) and 'Parents and Teachers for Excellence' (does it really do what it says on the tin?) ride this wave by spelling STEM with an A while perpetuating their positioning of 'creativity' as a dirty word.

    Creativity has the power to engage children, innovate businesses and connect communities.

    Who doesn't want that?

    As Grayson Perry says in his book 'The Descent of Man':

    "Call me naive, but I believe all humans are born good. Goodness is surely evolutionary we want the human race to survive and the best way to do it is together. Evil is the behaviour of people who have been really fucked up "

    Forgive them. For they know not what they do.

    Or do they?

    And if so, ask "why?"


    1. This is a great summary. I could easily include another paragraph about The Policy Exchange, PTE, Pearson, Civitas et al. And maybe I will. Thanks for the comments. I love Grayson Perry. Creativity is so important and needs to be protected - full STEAM ahead.....

  3. Thanks for the blog post - an interesting read. Your comment about STEAM/STEM and creativity caught my attention as my subject area is design and technology (D&T). D&T suffers from confusion by seem as a vocational subject or technical subject and occasionally an art-based subject. So is it STEAM or STEM? In my mind it is neither, although it contributes to both.

    But you also touch on another aspect of the curriculum which is affected by the demise of design and technology (D&T) - critical thinking. Good D&T teachers teach children to critically analyse the usefulness of products and systems using a range of criteria, they also provide children with learning opportunities to resolve (not solve) complex design situations, known as 'wicked problems' by Rittel and Weber (1973), using their knowledge of materials, processes and people. It is these types of activity that contribute to children becoming 'thoughtful citizens who are more concerned with human wellbeing and environmental concerns'.

    1. Hi Alison, thank you for taking the time to read the post and to comment. I couldn't possibly comment on the whether D&T is STEM, STEAM or both but I think you raise some very important questions.

      I totally agree with your observations regarding critical thinking. There's actually a school of thought that argues critical thinking has been hijacked by neoliberals and has been repackaged/ rebranded sold to schools in the form of resources/ programmes. I'm actually writing a blog post about critical thinking which will follow on from the one I wrote about developing children's political literacy. Hopefully you'll enjoy it :)

      Have a great day!

    2. My comment about STEM/STEAM comes from (or stems from) my frustration from some within D&T who insist on arguing for D&T's place in the curriculum because it contributes to STEM or STEAM. My view is that both are manufactured groupings to create a catchy acronym that do not question the purpose of education nor what might be lost by using limiting terminology to argue what D&T contributes to a child's education.
      Good luck with the PhD proposal - I am at the end stages of my PhD and writing up.
      I'll look out for your next post.

  4. Yeah, I agree. My background is teaching history and politics but I do worry that criticality and creativity are being pushed out of the curriculum. Whereas for me, that should be the purpose of education.
    Thank you, I actually really enjoy writing the proposal as it's in political literacy and the current state of education - this blog was adapted from an introductory chapter. Congrats on being so close to completion! Very jealous right now :)