Are We All NeoLiberal Now?


In this post I attempt to work through some initial thoughts in response to some of the material I have recently come across. It is not intended to be definitive, and I would be glad of any thoughtful responses in the comments. My research is looking at teacher and educational discourse on Twitter. I am currently working my way through some Foucault to give me a theoretical framework, and I hope to blog more often as I grapple with some of the things I come across in this work.

In the course of working on my doctoral research stuff, I was pointed in the direction of Professor Stephen Ball of the Institute of Education at University of London. So, I went poking around and found this video of a lecture of his given a couple of years ago:

It’s all very interesting stuff, in which Professor Ball illustrates the continued marketisation and commodification of higher education in the UK, which echoes many of my own observations about state schooling. Part of this is in the targetised, objective led way in which teachers have been forced to think about themselves, through annual review and performance related pay. Ball talks about the need to meet Research Excellence Framework (REF) standards in order to justify one’s position and how it doesn’t matter what one has done or achieved in the past, what matters is what one is doing now. This is, of course, a game that all teachers now play (in the state sector, certainly) where one has to justify ones salary by meeting two, three, or four performance management targets. In the worst schools, these include pupil attainment targets and lesson observation grades – yes, this is still happening in some schools. I have known colleagues face pay cuts (by moving down the pay scale) because they have not met the criteria of an average grade 2 or above across three observations over an academic year. In one previous school, the average lesson observation grade trumped the performance management targets – you could have the best results in the school, have done everything your line manager has asked of you, got fantastic rapport with students and all that, but if you didn’t get that magic average grade of 2 or above, you could get a pay cut.

Professor Ball also talks about the emerging rhetoric around research in education, specifically the what works kind of rhetoric. Now, I am a big fan of research and evidence, but I do have some concerns over the kind of research which is being mooted as some kind of gold standard, especially when there is dispute over which kinds of numbers hold more truth – are effect sizes the best measure? Do I need to use scales to ensure validity? And why are numbers perceived as being the only valid form of evidence? This is something that Ball mentions, referring to the work of the EEF. He points out that the kind of evidence favoured by the EEF is grounded in numerical, and ultimately financial terms.

Now, all of this is couched within an apparently agreed position that we are currently living through neoliberalism. This is a term which I had assumed was used mostly by the left on social media and in journalism to frame any political discussion in terms that demonise opposing points of view, and I had begun to see it as lazy labelling to shut down debate. As the UK Labour party currently eats itself, we see another term being used in a similar way – Trotskyist. So, in UK political discourse at the moment we have the fresh faced democratic socialists who are fighting the neoliberals on one front, whilst trying to save themselves from trotskyist infiltrators, whilst the trots wish to paint the democratic socialists as neoliberals in red shirts. Meanwhile, the liberals are furiously waving, trying to get our attention. But, it turns out, that this is the state of affairs in academia – we are all agreed that neoliberalism is the dominant political paradigm to which we have all been forced to surrender. The professor at my own university who pointed me to Ball said in correspondence that neoliberalism is “where we are for better or worse”.

So, having once believed that neoliberalism is real and the cause of many problems facing the world today, to deciding that this was just lazy thinking, I now question my own position on this. The professor at my uni pointed out to me that neoliberalism hijacks the language of freedom and fairness and somehow makes inequality sound fair. These are tricky issues for me. And I wonder if the current debate around the proposed College of Teaching actually might fit into this – is the CoT really about strengthening teacher professionalism, or is it a facet of neoliberalism?

From the standardised mode of performance management and the criteria referenced graded lesson observations that so many of us have faced, to the marketisation of the education system, and the CoT’s offer to let us pay for more criteria based assessment of ourselves, are we all neoliberals now?

Need vs Entitlement

“Why do I need to do Shakespeare, Sir? I’m gonna work with my dad plucking turkeys.”


This is a paraphrase of a particular question that I’ve been asked many times over my teaching career, and it reflects a particularly curious attitude towards what schooling should be for. The turkey bit is a half-truth.

I was asked recently by a a friend of a friend who happens to be a primary school teacher a version of this question; this version echoes something I’ve heard from many colleagues and read in many Twitter and Facebook conversations over the last year or so: Does a six year old need to know about subordinate clauses (or whatever the heck they are called now)? This is essentially the same question as whether or not a 14 year old should study Shakespeare if he’s not going to be quoting the Bard in his daily vocation.

Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.

This question reflects a train of thought which is that kids should only be taught things that they will need for some utilitarian purpose or other. How one determines what is and isn’t needed is never fully explained during these kinds of debates, but it seems that even approaches to reading and aspects of maths can sometimes fall under the un-needed heading.

The thing about this question is that the answer is really, very, very simple: No.

No, seven-year olds don’t need to know about clauses. No, 14 year olds don’t need to have any experience whatsoever of Shakespeare. But, come to that, no-one really needs anything that schooling has to offer. Human beings managed perfectly well without schooling in many societies for many centuries. Our offspring can learn all they need from us as parents, siblings, extended families, local communities and so on.

The need argument is reductionist and logically concludes in the abolition of schooling. We don’t need it. Come to that, we don’t need very much at all. Get rid of art, music, love, sex. Get rid of chocolate covered malted milk. Bye bye, lasagne. Bye bye, culture.

But the issue isn’t about need. It is about entitlement. You should do Shakespeare because it’s brilliant, and you might come to like it. You should do Shakespeare because it enriches your experience of life. You should do Shakespeare because, like Captain Kirk hugging, enveloping and making love to the mountain, it’s there!

Why shouldn’t my daughter learn about subjunctives? What is it about grammar, and maths, and poetry that people are so afraid of? Why have we made these things the bogeymen of educational experience? We should be encouraging our children to want to know these things, allowing our children to experience all that human culture, our culture – their culture – has gifted to us.

I know there’s an argument about which aspects of the cultural inheritance we choose to pass on, and how we decide which bits to leave out. And I know there is a serious conversation to be had about those choices. But, ultimately, to think just in utilitarian terms about what kids need is, to my mind, denying them a rich cultural heritage.

Someone on Twitter (and I really wish I could remember who, was it Martin Robinson? Or is this a Steve Original? ) once compared teaching to curating a museum or art gallery. I like this analogy.

Update: It was Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c) who made the analogy, in this post. Thanks to @5N_Afzal for tirelessly locating it!