Notes from our symposium on the impacts of neoliberal policy on the lived experiences of Primary school communities

We held our symposium on the Impacts of neoliberal policy on the lived experiences of Primary school communities last week. The abstract pack, with the background to the event, is available here.

In this post, I will briefly flag the key points that I took from each of our six presentations, and also from the questions and interventions that followed.

These notes should be read in conjunction with today’s National Union of Teachers’ report on the effects of SATs on children and teachers in primary schools. The report is called The SATs
effect: teachers’ verdict.


Richard Hall: I spoke about the rule of money, and how that comes to dominate our social relationships and the lived experiences of our school communities. I quote the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on Long-run comparisons of spending per pupil across different stages of education, which states (p. 32):

Overall, the picture of government spending on education has changed significantly over the last 25 years, with the focus of spending shifting towards earlier in youngsters’ lives. Most stages of education have seen significant real-terms increases in spending per pupil over this period, with 16–18 education a notable exception. However, the spending cuts expected in the coming years present a challenge to continuing to provide high-quality education at every stage.

This sense of the terrain moving under austerity is reinforced by the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015). The act defines a new performance metric for education outcomes in higher education, namely the repayment of loans by course and institution. This is achieved by linking student outcomes to HMRC data, in order to predict the risk/return on Human Capital Investment. A key element of this is the ability to create incentive and reward structures for educational providers, by distinguishing those that engage with productive enterprise and employment outcomes.

The Education Evaluation fact sheet that accompanied the Bill notes its aim is as follows.

  • To provide new and improved information on learning outcomes by tracking students through education into the labour market.
  • To provide a broader range of performance data on education and training providers in the performance tables. This will secure a comprehensive accountability system and better informed interventions and policies.
  • To allow us to share, at student level, information on the destinations of former students with colleges in England and Wales. This will help to make destination measures (as a form of accountability measure) more comprehensive and robust and thus help schools and colleges with self-improvement.

This offers the possibility to track students longitudinally, and to situate primary education inside an ecosystem focused around human capital and lifetime labour market outcomes. This ecosystem is demarcated by competition between providers and individuals/families, externally imposed standards and accountability, and data or information flows that allow further financialisation and marketisation of the educational space (through the provision of services, institutional/individual loans, and trading in debt/debt-risk). Superficially, this ecosystem is revealed to us through issues of performance management and performativity, and the ways in which we internalise external standards and competition, in order that we can provide enriched data (from the EYFS profile onwards).

However if we delve deeper, we can trace the realities of performativity back to their root in alienated labour and the production/circulation of (economic/monetary) value in education. This connects issues of performance management to: the generation of human capital and employability skills (including a positive attitude in families to education choices and sustainable employment, resilience and social mobility etc.); the circulation and exchange of services as commodities inside schools; and the focus on schools generating surpluses and value-for-money. In this way it is important to delve below the surface of performance management to look at how labour and value shape the relationships inside our primary school communities (involving children, parents/carers, teachers, governors, local government, central government, management, private service providers, and so on). As a result we may be able to question whether alternatives might be generated.


Ross Purves spoke about music education, and in particular the contradictions of neoliberalism in reinforcing persistent inequities in young people’s opportunities to access and sustain engagement with music provision. Ross raised issues of teacher and pupil autonomy over creativity in the curriculum, and the monetisation of creativity.

Ross’s slides are available here..


Indrani Lahiri discussed migrant children’s schooling, in terms of a complex narrative of representation and intervention in the mediated public sphere. What does it mean to be a migrant inside institutions like schools? How are people othered in the spaces, and what is the relationship to the decolonisation of the curriculum, and the narratives that are reinforced through neoliberal governance inside our schools and the communities that they serve?

Indrani’s slides are available here..


Dave Cudworth spoke about A Spatial Exploration of Neo-Liberal Schooling, and lived spaces that might be changed as they are appropriated (both for good and for ill). Dave made me consider the relationship between performance management in both time and space. David Harvey has spoken about post modernism and space-time compression (and Einsteinian view of the world, as opposed to a Newtonian view). Here we might see spaces concrete, and time is abstract, with the latter as the form of value inside neoliberal capitalism. Dave also made me consider issues of emotional space and emotional time, which are increasingly squeezed out because they do not deliver value. Here there were links to Indrani’s talk in terms of issues of marginalisation in space and time, especially in relation to gender, ethnicity, issues of migration and so on.

Dave’s slides are available here..


Emily Forster spoke about Inclusion and the neoliberal education system. For Emily, the formal education system has long been the site in which concepts of ability and disability have been constructed. She argued that there is an inherent tension between inclusion and neoliberalism and that neoliberalism is a ‘normalising’ force. However, the fact that they exist at the same time in an increasingly diverse education system means that inclusion can provide the means to resist neoliberalism. Emily made me consider the ways in which we forge, create and reproduce society, inside a performance-based culture (where we are increasingly quantified). How are ideas of gender, disability, ethnicity constructed? How do they intersect or interlock?

Emily’s slides are available here.


Mark Pulsford spoke about the mutually-defining relationship between male Primary school teachers and the ‘local community’. For Mark, a key issue is whether teachers can now be seen as active agents of neoliberalism. He argues that the ‘male’ and ‘teacher’ identities forged by and for these men are entwined with – and indeed even dependent on – notions of the ideal/deficient parent and the typical pupil from the ‘local area’. These notions revolve around an image of a ‘broken’ society in which ‘traditional’ values, as encased in the moral primacy of the normative family structure, have disintegrated. Here the argument is that context produces people, and therefore that male role models actors superheroes that can mend broken communities, as agents of neoliberalism. Here, fetishisation is central.

Mark’s slides are available here..


Other issues that were raised during the symposium related to:

  • the cognitive dissonance deployed by teachers who lack autonomy/power-over their curricula and classrooms, for whom the delivery of targets is potentially dehumanising;
  • the role of parents and carers in schooling, and in developing human capital;
  • the role of parents and carers in the relationship between schools and the State, and the implications for pupils
  • issues of pervasive prejudice, colourblind norms and perceptual segregation in schooling.

A few questions arose for me towards the end of the day, in no particular order.

  • Who does choice favour, and how is the choice agenda/personalisation fetishised against the idea of the quantified self and self-regulation (by pupils and their families/carers, by teachers, and by school management)?
  • How are bodies placed, inside rooms and activities, as opposed to having autonomy for sensuous activity?
  • Our teachers, pupils, families, communities seen as problems to be fixed? Are certain bodies, people, schools or communities seen as desirable?
  • What does progress look like in this context of an ablest culture, where standardisation and benchmarking allegedly leads to rational choices.
  • Where schools are a reflection of what society values, are we too focused on the idea of performative, professional patriarchs? Here, what is the relationship between morality, sin and resilience?

An outcome from the event beyond this blog post is the potential for a special issue/call for papers in relation to the lived experiences of Primary school communities under neoliberal governance. We are also considering a reading group, and a forum for sharing ideas and projects.