The Neoliberal Perspective on Education

Neoliberalism holds that education systems should be run according to free market principles. Neoliberals believe that education should be privatised both endogenously and exogenously, parents and students given more choice and voice and they also advocate for more top down surveillance and performance management.

Neoliberalism has been the dominant economic ideology shaping social policy in Britain and many other countries since the early 1980s.

This post outlines four key ideas associated with a neoliberal view of education including:

  1. Competition between schools (‘endogenous’ privatisation)
  2. External (exogenous) privatisation of education
  3. Choice and voice for parents and pupils
  4. Surveillance of teachers and top down performance management.

Neoliberalism has influenced education in Britain since the New Right were in power from 1979 to 1997, during New Labour (1997 to 2010) and since the Coalition and Conservative reign which started in 2010 and continues to this day with the recent coronation of the unelected multimillionaire and darling of the neoliberal global economic elite Rishi Sunak.

While neoliberal ideas have transformed education in Britain over the last 40 years, although we are nowhere near having a pure free-market system in education system, and many neoliberal ideas have been ‘restrained’ by more social democratic (left wing) thinking.

Endogenous Privatisation

Endogenous privatisation is where public sector organisations are made to work in a more business like way by creating ‘quasi-market systems’.

The main policy which introduced endogenous privatisation in England and Wales was the 1988 Education Reform Act, enacted by the New Right government under Thatcher who was strongly influenced by Neoliberal ideas.

The Reform Act introduced League Tables and gave parents choice over what school to send their children to. Schools then had to compete for pupils as funding was linked to how many pupils they attracted (known as formula funding).

The problem with this type of endogenous privatisation was that it led to cream skimming and polarisation:

The best performing school in league tables were oversubscribed and skimmed off the higher ability students, the worst schools had to just take the lower ability students that were not chosen by the best schools. This resulted in the better performing schools getting better and the lower performing schools getting worse (polarisation).

Another problem was that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the better schools would exclude any students who were naughty to keep their results high.

Successive education policies up until the present day have had to ‘tweak’ the above competitive education system to try and stop schools from excluding weaker students and to encourage a wider range of schools to take on lower ability students.

Two ways they have done this is to modify League Tables so they now show ‘value added’ – what a school adds to a student’s ability based on where they started, rather than ‘pure grades’, and they’ve linked funding to how long a student stays in school to try and cut down on exclusions.

The Pupil Premium also encouraged schools to take on higher numbers of disadvantaged students who typically have lower academic performance by linking more funding to those students.

Exogenous Privatisation

Exogenous privatisation is privatisation from the outside through new providers – it where private companies take over services which had previously been run by the public sector.

Exogenous privatisation was advanced mainly under the New Labour government (1997 to 2010) and the Coalition and Tory government and has been a gradual process which continues to this day.

An example of exogenous privatisation in education is Connexions career services taking over career advice from schools. Careers advice had previously been done in-schools through in-house careers advisors who were on the payroll of the schools and thus the state. Today more and more schools ‘outsource’ their careers services to connexions which is a privately run company which operates for a profit.

Another example is companies such as Pearsons playing a more central role in producing text books and running GCSE and A-level exams.

Exogenous Privatisation isn’t purely a free-market activity as it doesn’t involve parents and pupils paying money directly to companies like Connexions and Pearsons. Rather, it is where the government takes tax payers money and gives it to these companies rather than the government employing people directly and paying them to run these services.

The theory is that companies can run aspects of educational services more efficiently than the government.

Increased choice for Parents

Given parents choice is necessary for there to be an education market. Parents need to be able to choose which schools to send their children too in order for schools to compete for pupils.

The general idea is that increased competition will incentivise schools to raise standards.

But New Labour and the New Conservatives (from 2010) have also been pushing an increase in both diversity of school provision and personalisation of learning, which both reflect a move towards a late-modern consumer culture within education.

Increasing school diversity

Two main policies have increased school diversity – the introduction of academies in the late 1990s under New Labour and then the introduction of Free Schools under the Coalition Government.

Academies increased diversity by getting a much wider range of companies involved with running schools. England and Wales now have dozens of academies and academy chains, and well over 50% of secondary schools are now academies.

Free Schools took diversity and choice to a new level – any group of parents, charity, organisation can apply to run a free school and as long as they come up with a viable model and there is demand they will be approved.

There are currently over 500 Free Schools in the United Kingdom, offering able parents the most choice they’ve ever had in running their own school.

Increased personalisation of learning

Teachers are now expected to tailor their teaching to individual students. You see this most obviously in independent learning plans and learning agreements and periodic reviews of progress with individual students.

Top Down Performance Management

A final aspect of neoliberal education policy is top down management which involves more surveillance of teachers and pupils.

Many academies are huge chains with one ‘super head’ at the top, some on salaries of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The super head is effectively the CEO of the academy chain and he or she monitors the performance of all the schools in that chain.

And the heads of individual schools monitor the performance of their staff within their own schools.

If one school within the chain is underperforming, the management may well be sacked and a new manager/ headmaster shipped in, possibly from another school in the chain.

All of this has meant increased surveillance of schools, teachers, pupils, so that regular assessments of progress can be made by those at the top and suitable interventions made to tackle underperforming schools and individuals.

Taking over of failing schools

One aspect of increased surveillance is that schools deemed to be failing or even ‘acceptable’ in OFSTED reports are subject to forced acadamisation. This was a big thing under the Coalition government from 2010.

This meant that failing or acceptable LEA schools (funded through local government) were handed over to existing academy chains to be run by them, and to have their budgets managed by the academy chain rather than the local authority.

Signposting and Related Posts

The requirement to learn the neoliberal perspective on education was introduced to the education topic within the AQA A-level sociology specification in 2015.

Neoliberalism is closely related to the New Right, and I think it’s accurate to say that the former informed the later, but Neoliberalism is broader than the New Right, so it is NOT CORRECT to say they are the same thing, as you will find to be the case in the 2016 edition of Haralambos.

However, for the sake of the mid-level sociology student aiming for a C or B grade, you can probably mix the two up and treat them as the same in any essay question on the New Right and/ or Neoliberalism and still get a B grade (you could probably even get an A grade) for the essay as there is considerable overlap between the two!

If you’re interested in reading my take on the difference read this post: The New Right and Neoliberalism: An Introduction.

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

Sources

This post is a further summary of The Neoliberal Approach to Education Reform which is itself a summary of Stephen Ball’s (2013) The Education Debate.

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