Postmodernism and Education

A postmodern education should be diverse, individualised and allow choice. The British education system is not particularly postmodern!

Last Updated on January 27, 2023 by Karl Thompson

A postmodern education might be individualised, more diverse and offer more choice of subjects and learning pathways to learners, one might also expect it to be more playful, more hyperreal and express a certain incredulity towards metanarratives.

This would mirror changes associated with the shift from modern to postmodern society (especially since the 1980s). Postmodern society is more diverse, consumerist, fragmented, media-saturated (hyperreal) and allows individuals much more freedom of choice than in the previous modern society.

This post considers the extent to which our mainstream education system (mainly schools and colleges) might be characterised as postmodern or responding to postmodernisation.

You might like to review this article on modern and postmodern society before continuing.

Postmodern education or education responding to postmodernisation?

OK so this might sound like a pedantic semantic issue, but I think there is a difference to be made between a postmodern education and an education system (which may remain predominately modern) responding to society having become more postmodern (a process known as postmodernisation).

A postmodern education

As I understand it a postmodern education would display a certain incredulity towards metanarratives (maybe manifested through a scepticism about religion, science and politics and the possibility of progress), and maintain a relativistic attitude towards what knowledges are taught as part of a curriculum, and probably even abandon the concept of a curriculum altogether.

A postmodern education might also be more diverse, playful, not take itself too seriously, and allow parents choice and children the freedom to explore their own individual learning paths.

An education system responding to postmodernisation

The postmodernisation of society has resulted in societies becoming more diverse, individualised, consumerist, globalised, uncertain and risky.

An education system could respond to the postmodernisation of society by becoming more consumerist (by creating a market in education for example), but also by simply becoming more global in outlook and teaching children strategies to cope with new global risks and uncertainties, and it can do all of this through a relatively modernistic, centralised curriculum.

Personally I’d characterise the latter as a late-modern education system rather than postmodern.

The above type of education system is very different to a ‘postmodern education’ and might not be effective if there was a radically relativistic and playful approach to knowledge, BUT these can also be part of a late modern as well a postmodern approach to education.

One further change which could be either or both the postmodernisation of education or a late modern response to postmodernisation is the move to more online learning within schools.

Is education in Britain becoming more Postmodern?

To determine if mainstream education is becoming more postmodern then we might expect to see evidence of all or any of the following:

  • More diversity of school types and more freedom of choice for parents
    • More home education of pupils
  • Less centralised control of schools and more autonomy for individual schools.
  • A move away from a prescriptive national curriculum.
  • More personalised and individual learning programmes for students within schools.
  • Schools making use of more online learning platforms.
  • A greater diversity of educational experience, more relativism.

Do parents have more choice of schools?

There has been a definite trend towards increasing diversity of types of school over the last 40 years.

Back in the early 1980s most parents had no choice but to send their children to the local education authority, and in some areas the actual specific school the child went to was determined by the local council.

Fast forward to 2022 and parents do have a choice of their preferred school AND there are a number of types of different school: LEA maintained or academies/ free schools, specialist schools and faith schools to name just a few.

And because most secondary schools are now academies which don’t have to follow the national curriculum there is potentially a greater diversity in the range of subjects that these schools offer.

However, while there is more choice and diversity today, it’s important to not overstate the increase in these trends. The vast majority of academies choose to follow the national curriculum, and they still focus mainly on getting students the best grades in their GCSEs or Ebacc subjects, and STEM subjects still have more status than the critical thinking subjects, all of which are very modernist.

Even free schools aren’t really innovative

The case of free schools also shows how little innovation is actually happening in the state education sector…

The promise of free schools when they first launched was that parents in local communities would be able to create their own schools which would increase school diversity, but 10 years on from the creation of the first free schools in 2010 only a third of now more than 500 free schools are ‘innovator schools’ having been set up by locals, the majority are either run by academy chains or faith groups, so are maybe better characterised as late modern rather than post-modern.

There is also some evidence that in some areas they have led to polarisation. Melanie Carvalho describes how here children were thriving at an ethnically diverse primary school in her local area until a Free School: Belham School was set up nearby.

This resulted in ‘middle class white flight’ as it was mostly white middle class children who left the old school to go to the new free school.

In the Free School, only 7% of children were eligible for Free School Meals, compare to 24% locally and 70% were from white British backgrounds compared to only 19% in other local schools.

So it’s more a case of white flight and ethnic segregation rather than more choice and diversity.

Homeschooling isn’t that significant

Homeschooling is possibly the postmodern form of education there is: taken to its extreme if every household chose to educate their children at home we’d have more than 20 million ‘learning centres’ at home with, presumably, children studying the most diverse array of subjects possible given the extreme level of decentralisation involved with homeschooling.

And there has been a rapid increase in the number of parents choosing to homeschool their children in recent years in the United Kingdom.

Between 2013 to 2018 there was a 130% increase to bring the number of homeschooled children to just over 57 000 by 2018. (1) with a further survey in 2019 reporting that there were 60,544 registered home educated children in England, an increase of around 15% compared to 2018 (2)

However, with a total of 9 million children in school this is less than 1% of children who are being home-educated, so clearly we are not talking about sufficient numbers for us to say that there is a significant trend towards the postmodernisation of education in this respect.

One also might question the extent to which a hypothetical mass movement towards home education would actually involve ‘education’ – for some households ‘home ed’ may just mean children being taken out of school and hem receiving no education, so this might be regressive rather than progressive, not that this distinction would matter to postmodernists anyway as they don’t believe in the concept of ‘progress’ anyway!

Do schools today have more autonomy?

Academies and free schools are free from Local Education Authority Control and receive their funding directly from central government, which means in once sense the majority of secondary schools now have more control to manage their own budgets because of that freedom.

However, there are still conditions which determine how money can be spent – most of it has to go on wages and teachers have to be paid a legally binding minimum salary, buildings have to be maintained to safe standards and Pupil Premium Funding has to spent on disadvantaged students.

And on top of this schools are still monitored by OFSTED, which is, by proxy, inspecting how effectively they are spending their budgets.

So in reality ‘independent control over budgets’ maybe means the heads of academies get to pay certain teachers a bit extra, maybe spend a few thousand more on fringe-subjects they value, but really 95% of the budget is already determined.

Have we moved away from a centralised curriculum?

As with the issue of autonomy more broadly, independent schools, academies and free schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, so this means that we currently have an education system which has the potential for radical diversity.

HOWEVER, the vast majority of schools spend most of their time teaching the standard national curriculum and Ebacc subjects: English, maths, the sciences, geography and history, and focus on getting their students through their Key Stage 4 exams with the best grades possible.

It may be true that outside of the mainstream exam-focussed subjects academies and free schools offer a rich ‘extended curriculum’ offering a range of sporting, creative and career-development programmes but realistically these are fringe offerings – schools are still 90% focused on national curriculum subjects because that’s what parents want.

Has learning become more personalised?

While personalised learning became a formal part of government policy in 2004 under New Labour, in reality schools remain for the most part exam factories focused mainly on getting students the best grades possible in the mainstream GCSE subjects such as English and Maths.

Personalised learning happens but most schools pay lip service to it – working with students to produce ‘personalised learning plans’ which are in reality not that unique to each student (lots of cutting and pasting going on for similar students) and then only reviewing these infrequently a few times every academic year.

The shift to online learning?

Global companies such as Pearsons are now offering purely online private education to 14-16 year olds covering their own GCSES.

However, this is a very narrow offering to only older students and not available to all students.

At the level of state education schools in England and Wales were forced to shift to mostly online learning for the majority of students during the two government imposed lockdowns of 2020-21 during the Covid-19 pandemic. This provides us with a natural experiment to test out how successful online learning is for school aged children.

According to research from the Office for National Statistics teacher assessments students who were studying purely online only covered from between 50-75% of what the few in-school students covered during that period, suggesting that online learning is drastically less effective that in-person education:

Moreover this recent review of online learning during the pandemic by the government suggests that both the quantity and quality of education received by students fell with over half of parents saying they felt it challenging to support students and that quality of education students received at home varied greatly depending on the level of education of parents.

In short, the ‘natural experiment’ in online learning that took place during the lockdowns seems to have been judged as a resounding failure by the government.

So far the available evidence suggests that while schools are becoming ever so slightly postmodern, this is really only on the fringes, and they remain around 95% modernist institutions, but how successfully has our education system made rational adaptations to the postmodernisation of society?

Education Responding to postmodernisation

The changes below are (to my mind) more likely to be characteristic of a late modern education system rather than a post modern education system…

  • the rise of apprenticeships and more vocational options in post-16 education
  • Schools having a more global outlook and teaching more about global issues such as climate change
  • Schools teaching students strategies to cope with the risks of living in post/ late modern society.

the rise of apprenticeships

The last 40 years has seen a significant increase in the variety of vocational options on offer.

The increasing variety of apprenticeships especially suggests that the system is adapting to an increasingly diverse and competitive global economy.

There are currently over 600 types of apprenticeship available with around 750 million people studying towards them, but in reality the diversity is even greater because there are thousands of employers who will be educating their young employees (apprentices) according to the specific needs of their companies, adapting the ‘framework’ of the apprenticeship to suit their specific needs.

Teaching about global issues

At the beginning of 2023 climate change is still not on the national curriculum. There is a private members bill currently going through its second reading in the house of commons but even if it makes this through and becomes law (it’s difficult to see how it can’t pass!) it’s incredible to note just how late in the day this is coming to fruition.

Although maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by this lack of pace in getting climate change on the education agenda. After all, it is totally in line to the lack of specific action being taken to reduce global emissions.

This fact also suggests that schools are fundamentally failing to prepare younger people to cope with what is probably going to be the major challenge of their generation.

NB if the bill still hasn’t gone through by the time you’re reading this you can if you like sign this petition but together by Teach the Future.

Teaching strategies to cope with new risks in society

One example of this the government introducing the PREVENT strategy to deal with radicalisation and the threat of terrorism. HOWEVER, there is nothing at all postmodern about this because one aspect of PREVENT was to make schools teach British Values, which itself is a very modernist response, as is the potential for the policy to alienate Muslim students.

Most schools do offer lessons on staying safe online as part of their PSHE portfolio, but this is hardly front and centre of schools’ teaching agendas, rather many schools do their duty to teach this content but do so in a piecemeal and often cringeworthy and ineffective manner.

When it comes to issues of safety in general while schools do have safeguarding duties and the some of the more vulnerable students are protected, when it comes to the more subtle, everyday risks which ‘non-vulnerable’ students have to deal with, they are very much left to fend for themselves, left to figure out their own strategies for negotiating the risks of living in an uncertain world, and more often than not they have to first figure out what these risks actually are!

Postmodernism, Postmodernisation and Education: Conclusions

The education system has become more postmodern in some ways such as:

  • Education market, more consumerist, more choice of schools and subjects
  • Especially post-16.
  • More personalisation
  • Shift to online learning.

However, overall I would say this has NOT been a significant trend. There is very little within the education system to point to a shift towards postmodernism.

Rather, the education system as a whole for 5-16 year olds remains very modern in that most schools stick to the fairly narrow national curriculum, most try to instil a sense of shared values and solidarity, and the primary focus of mainstream schools is getting children through the national exams with the best grades.

And once we drill down into it there is little real choice for most parents, little real diversity, little in the way of innovation or experimentation.

Sort of a 10% postmodern fringe. 90% modern.

I think at best we might characterise our education system as ‘late modern’ – because it has adapted in some ways to reflect our society becoming more postmodern in response to the emergence of globalisation and digital technology. For example, history and english literature now have more options to look at global events and texts and the Pandemic saw a radical increase in the amount of online learning.

However in terms of equipping students with the skills they will need to cope with the risks associated with living in our global postmodern world schools lag way behind – there is little in they way of giving students the skills they will need to cope with the world of work (if that’s even possible to do in school), and very little effective education teaching about global issues such as climate change or how to stay safe online.

If education is becoming more post (or late) modern then this shift is happening outside of the mainstream education system (maybe even in spite of it), possible examples of which include…

  • the rise of online digital learning platforms such as Udemy
  • The increase in independent people offering education and training on YouTube and other channels
  • The increase in ordinary people sharing their stories, experiences and life-experiments, and the increased interest in people consuming these.
  • The increase in both children and adults using the above sources to educate themselves about what interests them (on top of what they have to learn for work or school).
  • Students increasingly using online sources to educate themselves rather than resources provided by the school they attend (such as text books).

If we were to explore the above we might well find that we might characterise informal child and adult-education outside of the mainstream education system as postmodern, but I can’t hand on heart characterise the formal educational institutions and practices as being postmodern in 2023.


This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education.

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Postscript: a note on pedantic postmodern semantics.

Sorry, that’s postmodernism for you! Just suck it up and try to understand what you can!

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