The commodification of knowledge in schools

11 min read

Stephen Ball’s well-known lecture on the commodification of education (Ball, 2004), publicised – to some degree – academic discourse on the nature of the privatisation of state schools in  England. Ball focussed on the establishment of a quasi market through the introduction of parental choice. I, on the other hand, want to consider here privatisation through the commodification of knowledge. The question I address is: can knowledge, in the context of compulsory education, be viewed as a commodity? And how does this impact on schools’ cultures and teachers’ pay, conditions and access to continuing professional development. Though the second question I will deal with in a subsequent blog. This also follows my previous blog Schools in England were privatised in 1988.

I will start by explaining what I mean by a ‘commodity’ in a more general sense. I will then go on to show that knowledge as a result of education policy has become a commodity.

The original meaning of commodity – that is before modern times – derived from Latin via French was, was ‘convenience’ or ‘of use to mankind’. In modern usage its meaning has developed to connote tangible items but of worth or of value. The attachment of value is important and recognised by classical political economists. As David Ricardo explained: “Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labour required to obtain them” (Ricardo, 1817, p. 1). Importantly, Ricardo links a commodity’s value to demand, use and scarcity, he also links value to the labour invested in the production of the commodity. Adam Smith developed this idea: “The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities” (Smith, 1852, p. 13).

The relationship between commodity and labour value is important in explaining how the privatisation of education has led to the increased workload and intensity of work and the reduction in pay and conditions. However, I don’t intend to develop that in this blog, although, it is important to remind the reader that my overall aim in this series of blogs is to show how the privatisation of education, that began with the Education Reform Act (1988), led to the undermining of teachers’ pay and conditions and reduced access to quality professional development.

So far my definitions of commodity suggest tangibility: a product or a precious metal. Marx however, expanding on Smith and Ricardo’s conceptions of commodity provides a less material but metaphysical conception:

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference (Marx, 1981).

A commodity, in this respect, loses physical form and and can be an idea, a concept or knowledge. Ricardo and Smith conceptualise commodities as physical items that are exchanged in physical acts. Marx, in contrast, develops the social and psychological significance of commodity and exchange. And of course this leads to social and power relations around relative wealth and exchange.

Before considering the commodification of knowledge in the privatisation of schools. It is worth pointing out that the commodification of knowledge is not something that began as part of education policy in that last 30 to 40 years, it goes back at least a 100 years. Rose (2010) in his monumental history of The intellectual life of the British working classes suggests a transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the working class in the nineteenth century the literary canon was accessible to the poorest in society, but in the twentieth century autodidacts found “…the cultural goalposts had moved, that a new canon of deliberately difficult literature had been called into existence. The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of coterie” (p. 394). Rose goes on to observe that “Like other goods, the market value of knowledge increases with scarcity…the exchange value of knowledge can be enhanced by creating artificial scarcities, monopolies, or oligopolies, through such devices as copyright, encryption, and professional accreditation” (ibid.) [1]. And so needs and wants have been created in respect to culture and knowledge as an economic imperative.

If you now relate this to my previous blog on the freemarket and the Education Reform Act (1988) (ERA), the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) confers on education the production and sale of knowledge commodities. Knowledge commodities are identified by introducing performance indicators based on assessments. The introduction of the National Curriculum and four Key Stages, two at primary and two at secondary,  provided a mechanism through which age-specific and discipline-oriented knowledge could be specified. This is exemplified in the following extract from the original National Curriculum for England and Wales. It specifies the knowledge required by pupils to achieve a certain level in a particular aspect of mathematics. End of Key Stage tests were introduced through the 1990s, primarily in English and mathematics. As a result, throughout a child’s school life, there was a state mechanism of quantifying the acquisition of knowledge.


An extract from the 1989 National Curriculum for mathematics. Attainment target 2 (AT2) number, level 4 (DES/WO, 1989)

At the end of Key Stage 4, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GSCE) was introduced to replace the O level (General Certificate of Education, GCE) and Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in 1988. This qualification continues to be taken by the majority of students at age 15 or 16 years old. The examination specification provides a detailed specification of ‘knowledge’ for a wide range of subjects. Although reforms in 2010 brought in by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government reduced the content of the original National Curriculum, the specifications of GCSE examinations continue to provide the codification knowledge at secondary level. The assessments in primary schools fulfil the same function there.

Having identified the way in which knowledge has been specified, quantified and codified in schools, I will now take this back to the concept of commodity and value, and relate this to mechanisms of marketization introduced with ERA. Ricardo, Smith and Marx related commodity implicitly to exchange value, not only must the commodity be identifiable as a tangible object or as codified knowledge, as I have just shown, it is necessary that there is some exchange for other commodities or for money. ERA and LMS provided the possibility of exchange through the introduction of formula funding and performance indicators (see previous blog). The establishment of a voucher scheme is equivalent to individual pupils buying knowledge commodities. Although this is not fully a freemarket system, because the exercise of choice is limited and there is no direct exchange of money between consumer and service provider (i.e. the school), the system is no longer a public provision but is marketized. I will show in a subsequent blog that this liberation, while not fully subject to the invisible hand [2], is sufficiently marketised to have a profound impact on the working conditions of teachers and on the culture of schools. Essentially, however constrained, schools are operating in a market selling a service which allows students access to knowledge commodities. The relationship is different to the school as public and community-owned service offering a broad education to the local community, in particular to their children.

If you want to get a sense of the pervasiveness of marketisation, consider the awareness of older pupils in their recognition that they are consumers within a marketised system.

Increasingly, the students are aware of their worth and I think that’s quite an interesting development…”I’m worth £2200 to this school,” is a phrase that I have known a Year 11 student say to me, as it was a bargaining [ploy] and there was one lady [to whom] I retorted that ..”£2200, You know, you’re not worth the trouble, go to Riverway, we don’t need £2200 of your trouble, or whatever it is” (Head of sixth form, FLightpath school, 1 July 1993: Gewirtz, Ball, & Bowe, 1995, p. 176 ).

What I have demonstrated in this blog is that knowledge can be viewed as a commodity. This has been done through policy, by codifying knowledge through national assessments and the national curriculum. the second component is the introduction of a market. The latter has been achieved by introducing per-pupil funding and performance indicators, which means payment is related to the provision of a service of specified knowledge delivery.

The subtle incremental policy changes have led to the privatisaton of schools, operating a cypto-voucher scheme for the purchase of quantities of officially defined knowledge. What I will show in the next blog is how the marketisation of schools leads to diminishing pay and working conditions of teachers.


  1. Theories of information supply and demand are presented by Goody (1968) and Douglas and Isherwood (1996). Goody describes how literacy was restricted in pre-print societies. Douglas and Isherwood conclude that there is a rational economic strategy to control access and exclude (both cited in Rose, 2010).
  2. The invisible hand was what Adam Smith referred to as the guiding forces of the freemarket.


Department for Education and Science/Welsh Office (DES/WO). (1989). Mathematics in the National Curriculum. London: HMSO.
Douglas, M., & Isherwood, B. C. (1996). The world of goods: towards an anthropology of consumption: with a new introduction (Rev. ed). London ; New York: Routledge.
Goody, J. (1968). Literacy in traditional societies. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.
Gewirtz, S., Ball, S. J., & Bowe, R. (1995). Markets, choice, and equity in education. Buckingham ; Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Marx, K. (1981). Capital: a critique of political economy. (D. Fernbach, Trans.). London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.
Ricardo, D. (1817). The principles of political economy and taxation. London: John Murray.
Rose, J. (2010). The intellectual life of the British working classes (2nd ed). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Smith, A. (1852). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. London and Edinburgh: T Nelson and Sons.

3 thoughts on “The commodification of knowledge in schools

  1. Pingback: Capital and privatised schools | Steve Watson

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