This paper was presented to the European Conference on Educational Research, Vienna 2009. The course of educational reform in England has been broader, deeper...
In the global neo-liberal education policy market England has been both a major importer, especially from the United States, and an influential exporter of policy to the rest of the world. Now, in the context of the run-up to a general election in Britain, probably in May 2010, the Conservatives have unleashed a set of bold proposals for radically increased autonomy for schools. It is impossible to predict whether the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, will replace Labour under Gordon Brown as the next government. Their lead is small and there may be a hung Parliament, so it is also impossible to predict what agenda for education will emerge, but Conservative ideas are shaping the current debate in England, may continue to do so whatever the outcome of the election, and may also influence policy in other countries.
Education was a thread amongst the many issues up for debate during the European Social Forum in London. One specific seminar claimed that “Another School Is Possible”. Ealing National Union of Teachers branch has sponsored the participation of US education-activist Bob Peterson at this session, and its secretary Nick Grant interviewed him about his work.
Education in the UK is being driven by a neo-liberal agenda which ensures its subordination to the demand for profitable human capital for economic competitiveness in the globalised corporate economy. This indirect commodification of education is achieved through a combination of an authoritarian managerialist regime and direct forms of commodification through the marketisation and partial privatisation of provision. This education agenda is international, promoted in nationally specific forms by governments around the world and mediated by key international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation. In Europe the European Commission is supervising the gradual convergence of education policies around the neo-liberal agenda.
“Schools are important to everyone, and it has recently become a high-stakes game for that very reason. How much is that business worth ? I doubt we’ll ever be able to answer that question fully. But we’re going to continue to be very aggressive and proactive in getting our share of the school business” (Molnar, p 71). Ten years have passed since David Van Houten, vice-president of Coca-Cola Enterprises, made this frank declaration. And when you read Alex Molnar’s last book, School Commercialism, it seems that he delivered the goods.
Under the new British government, marketisation and privatisation in the school system takes two forms. First, all schools will be able to become Academies: they gain more freedom over the curriculum and admissions and more control over staff because, being under private school legislation, they are not bound by national or local union agreements on pay and conditions. Secondly alternative providers - private organisations and groups of parents and teachers – will be allowed to open up so-called ‘free schools’, again outside local authorities and funded by government.