In a piece for the Guardian the esteemed educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse writes:
“Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism underpinned Baker’s 1988 reform bill, which meant a prescribed national curriculum and tougher accountability, along with diversity in school provision and autonomy.”
This seems to uncover a contradiction at the heart of neoliberalism – on the one hand it is controlling and centralising and on the other it is diverse and autonomous…
Is neoliberalism this conflicted?
In a book called: A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism, the writer Kean Birch explores why the term seems to be a catch all term for anything someone doesn’t like.
The first time the term was used was in 1884 in an article for the Modern Review, in which it was used to describe policies associated with the use of state intervention in the economy. By 1898, in the Economic Journal, it was referred to as the future, a coming: “hedonistic world … in which free competition will reign absolutely”. So it seems that Brighouse has used both interpretations – the interventionist and the free market ones to define neo-liberalism. This conflation of the two meanings has precedence, German Ordoliberalism was a school of thought that thought that free markets needed a strong state to make them work. Birch suggests this is the roots of what was to become the vision for the EU.
In 1951 the free market economist and guru for Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman referred to himself as a neoliberal, though he notably stopped using the term later on.
It was in the 1980’s that ‘neoliberalism’ became most associated with it’s contemporary meaning, which, according to the OED, is: ‘a modified form of liberalism tending to favour free-market capitalism.’
The contemporary understanding of the term means that the role of choice is crucial, with the consumer at the centre, and internationally with trade barriers down and global movement of capital, products and ideas, the customer feels they have freedom to choose what to think, buy, say and do. The epitome of this is the silicon valley dream as extolled by the mega-companies Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter et al…
Birch points out that this leads to other contradictions, foremost being what to do about the monopolistic power of these types of companies who seem to be able to act more freely than the individuals they claim to benefit? The recent Facebook scandal seems to be a case in point.
Entrepreneurial thinking has a large input on how we live our lives. Our transactions and decision making are seemingly guided more and more by economic imperatives and utilitarian thinking.
Birch suggests the idea Guy Standing extols is relevant – that though our markets seem free, they are instead less so: “income is channelled to the owners of property – financial, physical and intellectual – at the expense of society.” The contradiction is between the practice of free markets on the ground and the reality of the market freedoms being hoovered up by large monopolistic concerns. Whether it is through global companies like Amazon or Facebook or bureaucracies like the EU, neoliberalism is now operating at the expense of the individual and their communities and in favour of distorted markets. Whilst the consumer seems to have more choice on the ground it is becoming more clear that this ‘choice’ is manipulated by global companies who ‘nudge’ us towards certain choices rather than others. Seemingly, these choices are based on our consumer habits as picked up by a variety of algorithms. We are tempted to buy more of what we ‘like’, rather than tempted out of our comfort zones and consequently our worldview narrows. When this moves beyond products and into ‘ideas’ people become very concerned- hence the scandal around Cambridge Analytica. This is why ‘neoliberal schooling’ is viewed with suspicion.
There are a number of critics who suggest that Multi-Academy Trusts are a sign of a monopolising agenda. The original idea of Free Schools was a romantic hope for teacher or parent run schools that put freedom into the hands of teachers to teach. This laissez-faire hope for a legion of little platoons to shake up schooling has some notable successes – Michaela and School 21 to mention two. There are, of course, problems with some small schools and, the argument goes, that economies of scale are important in order for schools to be run efficiently, and where they don’t succeed some free schools and stand-alone academies have therefore become subsumed into larger trusts. Centralising around a brand rather than launching out on a dream.
It is an inevitable feature of capitalism to monopolise, that’s why we have the monopolies commission… for a good market to operate it needs diversity and it needs different models, products and companies to join the fray. So, paradoxically, a free market needs overseers to intervene in order for the market to remain healthy. The problems we are seeing with Facebook and legislation to control it is an example of when markets monopolise and become all too powerful.
The romantic agenda of free schools and the increasing number of academy chains could be made to work, if new free schools are still encouraged – especially if they have some sort of innovative educational ethos to make their contribution to the national and international debate around education – this could bring about a healthy model that resists monopolisation and stagnation. MATS can do a good job but not if they become too monopolistic and gargantuan. If they do it might be their offer ends up being as bad or worse than the worst LAs in times past. If we ensure a number of MATs can run alongside one another then we might be able to ensure they don’t become all too powerful. This also suggests a model of competition that needs to sustain over-capacity in the system, something that in this day and age of teacher shortages might seem a far cry away.
The most pernicious effects of global neoliberalism is to be seen, rather than at school organisational level, in the classroom itself. The ‘financial, physical and intellectual’ property that most involves itself in every day teaching and learning is the pernicious influence of tech brands. As much as I love my Apple products I do not wish to see them being the fulcrum around which teaching and learning takes place. Rather a teacher and pupils sharpening their own quills than being told the future means that they have to avail themselves of tablets and other screens. Apple, Google, Microsoft, ‘Educators’ are the representatives of ‘neoliberal’ education ready to ‘disrupt’ a model that has worked for thousands of years. Not in the name of education or on behalf of society but in the interests of the global businesses they are set to serve.
Gates and now Zuckerburg are at the forefront of disruption. And what is the most neoliberal thing they could do? Individualise and monopolise at the same time. Global companies controlling and centralising an education product that seemingly has the needs of the individual at heart. Where choice of what to learn, how to learn it and at what pace is put into the hands of the consumer and delivered by a global silicon valley corporation. They even have a name for it, ‘personalised learning’. For Zuckerberg this model just: “intuitively makes sense”. And, of course, if your model for humanity is facebook then of course it makes sense. Everyone following their own prejudices and tastes without having to be challenged by any particularly weighty content from an early age and, easily, finding themselves sucked into rabbit holes of misinformation and susceptible to global players who benefit from sowing the seeds of discontent. And the data that could be accrued by following the personalised learner’s choices in the day to day would certainly be something to interest the global tech giants. It happens to us all. School should be a place to challenge this model.
Even if students do choose to learn challenging content, if they’re all learning something different they’ll lose much of the essence of the school experience: the opportunity for group discussion, the excitement of bouncing ideas off of fellow students, and the guidance that a teacher ideally provides.
If you want to know what a neoliberal education is then go no further than ‘personalised learning’ – it is the zenith of this ideology.
The opposite approach is one that instead of leaving the individual all alone, save for powerful algorithms delivering ‘choices’ whilst farming their data, brings people together to share, discuss and argue with narratives that have been thought about by people with a degree of knowledge about a range of domains. Curriculum should not be left in the hands of novices to find their own way especially when that own way is being controlled behind the scenes by a few billionaires with a penchant for thinking their world view ‘intuitively makes sense’ and should be the model for us all.
This then is the contradicted neoliberal education model – ‘controlling and centralising’ tech companies delivering a product in which ‘diverse and autonomous’ customers/students feel they have ultimate control.
If you fear ‘neoliberal’ education then resist the moves towards personalisation in the classroom and, paradoxically, support the opening of more free schools and an overseer to reduce the power of MATs to over-monopolise.