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We write in this book about the remaking of schooling in Western Europe, and the policy orthodoxy – promoted by supranational organisations, shared across frontiers – that is so powerful an influence upon it. We draw much from others who have worked in this field before us – from theorists who have analysed the scalar shift in policymaking from national to supranational level ; from sociologists who have traced both the classic patterns of schooling’s regulation and their new forms ; and from those who have delineated the repertoire and discursive nuances of the new world order in education.1 To this now-abundant literature, we bring something of our own. Our particular interest is in the con- testation that attends supranational policy orthodoxy – how its arrival within the major countries of Western Europe has been the occasion for widespread criticism, discontent and mobilisation. This terrain, on which are fought out disputes central to the ways in which Europe’s present is understood and its future imagined, has not been so well explored by researchers, even when their sympathies have been engaged by those who challenge the new order.
The vantage point from which we interpret these disputes, and make sense of the changes that are reshaping the school, does not stand out- side the territory of contestation. Our own formation as teachers and researchers has been affected by participation in movements that have sought change at the level of the classroom and the school, as part of a much wider political and economic transformation. We are thus aware that educational change is better seen not as the simple realisation of a policy design but as an outcome of purposive activity (and conflict) at many levels, from the local to the international. More specifically, our book is influenced by the positions and actions of the social forces that have been mobilised against what we think oppositional social
movements justly call the neo-liberal project. We take neo-liberalism – whose general features and educational impact we sketch in the pages that follow – to be best understood as an aggressive programme, that self-consciously sets for itself the goal of achieving change of an epochal kind ; it aims to defeat the movements associated with an earlier phase of state-focused, welfare-orientated reform and to install a new systemic logic by means of which societies respond at every level – from individ- ual to governmental – to free-market imperatives. Our book is organised around various instances of this process of combative transformation, in which policy redesign is always accompanied by a concern for political tactics, and in which the forcefulness of opposition is a significant variable in the success or failure of educational programmes.
We are protagonists as well as commentators, then, but protagonists on the part of movements that are now, despite occasional spectacular victories – France 2005 – primarily defensive ones. And since the neo- liberal programme has been the dominant agenda-setting force in the post-1990 educational landscape, to focus on its achievements is also to recognise the strategic and intellectual problems of those traditions against which it has been directed. The educational systems that it is seeking to transform were created, in part, by popular aspirations for increased equality and social citizenship ; and to a significant, though never determining, extent, schools in Western Europe were for a period home to values and practices embodying solidarities of a sort resistant to the logic of the market, and strong enough even now to mobilise enduring protest. We owe our cultural and political formation to just such solidarities, and to this extent our book is grounded on the historic achievements of the last half-century. But we do not intend merely to celebrate a movement which in so many respects now finds itself on the defensive, an altermondialist optimism heavily qualified by a long suc- cession of defeats. At the end of his book on social change in Western Europe the sociologist Colin Crouch acknowledged that ‘the most ener- getic point of social power emerging in late twentieth century society was that of a globalising capitalism’. Surveying the opposition to capitalism’s transforming energies, he noted ‘the assembly of non-capitalist interests’ embodied in the movements and institutions of the post-war era, and asked what is for us an essential question. Is this assembly ‘simply a dead weight carried over from the past, or does it contain a potentiality for new action ?’2 It is with the exploration of this open question that our book is concerned, and our analysis and critique cut two ways : against a neo-liberalism whose programme promotes social and educational division while at the same time it narrows drastically the potential scope of education ; and against a left that has not yet made sense of new conditions, nor created (in most instances) a credible basis for counter-mobilisation. It is from this double perspective-returned to in our concluding chapter – that we interpret policy shifts and political conflicts.
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