The bitter struggle for the soul of education

I am not under any romantic illusion about the strike, about striking even. Sure, the sense of solidarity and the camaraderie of colleagues and supporters are fantastic. As is the chance to reimagine the way we do things in higher education. But we are in dispute with our employers. Our professional working relationship is disputed and this is disruptive and leaves strikers deeply conflicted. Striking involves much considerable emotional labour.

After six days on strike there is a sense that this is going to be a long struggle. I began to feel this way at the end of last week. The strikers I have spoken to suggest a similar reading of the situation.

That is not to say that there has not been some shift by the employers’ representatives, Universities UK (UUK) and UCEA, both have offered to reopen talks. This has been achieved as a result of strong strike action by UCU members across 60 institutions in the UK. Last time we struck in February 2018, the feel of the action was one of nervous energy, of excitement. Many of us were new to this kind of action. We didn’t know how the strike would go and what impact we would have. We did have an effect though, we forced the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel to improve the transparency and accountability of the pension scheme. The fact that USS and UUK then backtracked from the findings approved by the JEP is a big part of why we are back out on strike. The character of the current strike is one of gravity; activists, strikers and supporters are increasingly clear about the scale of the struggle ahead. This is matched by growing belief that this fight can be won.

The other part of why we are on strike is pay: pay and the gender and ethnic pay gap. What the (University and College Union) UCU has exposed at both a national level and within individual universities is the shocking level of precarity in the sector. I don’t think I have had a sense of the scale of it until our General Secretary, Jo Grady, came to speak to Cambridge UCU before the end of the strike ballot. But more importantly from the local work done by the CUCU Raise the Bar campaign on casualisation. The scale of the problem in Cambridge is much more considerable than the University of Cambridge would have us think. What we see is a picture of higher education as a vast army of precarious and casualised staff, with a decreasing proportion of permanent tenured position. According to the UCU, around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the sector remain on fixed-term contracts, with many more living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended but which build in redundancy dates. There are 37,000 teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, the majority of them hourly paid. In Cambridge, almost half the undergraduate teaching is undertaken by people in precarious employment.

The accounts of precarious working in Cambridge have been heard on strike rallies and in teach outs during the recent strike action. They have been shocking and are at odds with the University’s projected image. Reputation has become all for Cambridge. The vast expenditure on selling, preserving and extracting value from the University’s brand cannot disguise the deceit. For UK higher education is now a part of the gig economy, a sweatshop of precarious workers. Many precarious workers are lured by misrepresentations about the quality and reputation of the UK higher education. There have been some truly heartbreaking accounts of people thinking they have got a job at a world-leading university only to find that they are working for a temporary employment service that disbars them from putting the University of Cambridge on their CV, they have no holidays and no sick pay. If they factor all the things they do in trying to make a sustainable living like applying for jobs or making grant applications then their pay falls woefully short of what is needed to live on. Mangers’ justification in terms of the advantages of flexible working or when senior tenured university office holders characterise precarious staffs’ experience as a normal rite of passage, they sound really empty and out of touch to the individuals who experience the harsh reality and indignity of precarious working.

Let us see it for what it really is: UK Higher Education is now operating as a pyramid scheme.

So why is this turning into such major dispute? The reason for this (and I have written about this previously) is that pay and pensions are really on the symptom of underlying causes. The primary issue is in the role of the state in education. Or we should say lack of state involvement. The sector relies on debt funding, from students but also in raising capital. It relies on contract research or third-stream income, like from Cambridge Assessment here in Cambridge. The calculation and minimisation of risk in each institution is an essential feature where the state no longer underwrites public institutions. Naturally, there is a drive to reduce risk, one way of doing this is to make increasing numbers of staff bear the risk through precarious employment. The injustice is that this falls on new and junior staff, while established staff can enjoy quite a good secure and privileged existence. I do not wish to create antagonism between precarious and tenured staff but I do encourage senior staff with secure employment to show some solidarity with the precarious university worker. Please join staff and students on the picket line, join the UCU if you are not a member.

The current dispute between the UCU and universities is a battle for the heart of higher education. I would say it goes beyond that, it is a struggle to sustain the principle of a universal right to free lifelong learning and academic freedoms.

Why am I going on strike?

I am not going to begin by saying that I found it a difficult decision to take strike action. I didn’t struggle over the decision at all. That is not to say that I have no consideration for my students and colleagues, but that there is an urgent imperative in regard to defending the future of a public higher education system. I am on strike, sure, for my pay (which has shrunk in real terms) and my pension (with diminished benefits and more expensive contributions), but these are just the symptoms, the apparitions, of the effects of higher education and economic policy over recent decades. And It has all rather come to a head. 

Over the last decade a higher education market has emerged. In England this has featured an economy of (private) student debt, competing institutions and financialisation. As part of the financialisation process and to improve their competitive edge, institutions must reduce their exposure to risk. And part of this is the discipline in regard to pay and working conditions. There has been a considerable increase in fixed-term contracts and increasing numbers of precarious roles and zero-hours working. 

The state has a very important role in this. Instead of a state-backed higher education system, buffered from market vagaries by the state, in the marketised system, institutions must trade on their own financial value, status and reputation. The relevant feature of this is that each institution must engage in ongoing conscious assessment of organisational risk. It follows then that organisation’s decision making prioritises risk reduction. And hence we see an attack on staff pay, an attack on pensions and this dramatic increase in precarious working in the higher education sector. Marketised institutions tend to socialise their risk exposure to the people in the organisation. This means that students have a very financialised contractual relationship with the university and staff experience reduced pay and job security. 

These are not good conditions for effective education because it creates perverse incentives related to measurable indicators factored in to the university’s sense of its own risk exposure. This is further amplified by an excessively competitive graduate jobs market with many graduates going for few quality and secure positions. While there are plenty of low paid, precarious jobs for graduates, especially in the gig economy. It is for the same reasons that there are fewer permanent posts in universities as it is elsewhere. All businesses become preoccupied with risk in conditions of austerity, or another way of looking at austerity is as the state withdraws from managing the economy. The condition of austerity is when we move toward a point at which each individual is competing with everyone else for resources that are artificially made scarce. And it is this, the pressures of debt and particularly the limited jobs market that are major factors, I am sure, in students’ declining mental health. They put themselves under so much pressure in order to try and get ahead and it can become unhealthily overly competitive.

You can see that for me this strike is much more political. I believe it is a political struggle for what others have called the soul of higher education. The choice is between a privatised, marketised system featuring an elitist and unequal system funded by student debt. Or, a public education system that is based on the principle that each individual can freely access lifelong learning. The principle that education is for the public good and not serving reductive economic objectives. And this strike is one further aspect of the growing struggle to define the future social, political and economic direction of the UK. Because, as it happens, if you may not have noticed, there is a general election on also. Where the political divisions are much clearer than they have been for decades. Do you want a small state, financialised, rentier economy with a privatised public sector? Or do you want the state to use its power to support and help manage the economy and public services in a coherent way? I’ll make no apologies about being so partisan in this regard but I wholeheartedly believe the latter. The principle of universalism in respect to health and education is the only reasonable basis for a civilised society. 

But questions of affordability have vexed the debate about the state’s support for public services, whether we can afford, for example, free universal access to lifelong learning. In fact investing in public services stimulates demand in the economy. There is a fiscal stimulus which encourages longer term investment in the economy, which translates to higher quality and more secure employment (and improved productivity).

This strike is really about the defence of public education and it feels like a last line of defence. It is taking place in universities because in schools and colleges there has been such fragmentation that organising co-ordinated resistance is much more difficult than it used to be. After many years of dismantling public higher education, we now just have fragments of a public project and now it is the principles and values public education that must be defended.

And while the case to strike for me is clear and compelling, I like many colleagues feel deeply conflicted about having to take strike action. I feel a strong sense of vocation, a sense of duty as a public servant and out of a sense of responsibility to my students. But I also believe that action is necessary and justified.

Higher Education – a risky business

It was the universities pension strike in England last year that drew my attention to financial risk as a feature of the landscape in higher education. I was aware of risk in relation to private sector markets and business. Something that was brought to the public’s attention during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. The film, The Big Short, dramatized the risk taking and fraudulent modelling that led up to the GFC .

The pensions strike was prompted by universities wanting to – or at least some did (and especially mine) – ‘de-risk’. That is, they wanted to reduce their exposure to losses in case the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) became unviable. The question is then, why the imperative to de-risk, and why now?

Public spending restrained – credit unleashed

The question is best answered by considering the political economic trajectory that advanced economies have been following in recent decades. In the UK, an important point of transition was in 1976, when the then Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey took out a loan, on the UK’s behalf, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And as a condition of that loan, the UK had to reduce public spending. Although Healey was not the major villain here, the real villainy was from the subsequent Conservative governments and to some degree the New Labour government. The primary objective of the Thatcher government between 1979 and 1992 was to reduce the size of the state and roll back public spending. The New Labour government continued fiscal conservatism but promoted income distribution.

Most voters accepted this and accepted the analogy that the national economy was like their own personal finances. That a reduction in outgoings is, on the whole, sound economic practice and represents prudence. It is an application of the Micawber Principle at the macro level.

The problem is, of course, that unlike a household economy, income and expenditure are dependent on each other in a national economy. A nation state with a sovereign currency is a closed fiscal system. If there is a reduction in state spending, then this reduces the amount of state-created money within that system. The only means by which money can be created is through private-sector banking, though a mixture of secured and unsecured loans. A reduction in state spending depresses demand because people have less cash in their pockets, that is unless you encourage people to take on loans. This is exactly what happened in the UK from the 1970s onwards.

In 1971 reforms were made to the banking sector which liberalised credit; further deregulation took place in the 1980s making it much easier for anyone to get credit. The introduction of right-to-buy marked the expansion of secured debt. It had the effect of coupling consumer spending and economic growth increasingly to debt and inflating house prices. Figure 1 (by Steve Keen) illustrates this (and I have a print of this on A3 on my office wall because it is so significant). We see an unprecedented expansion of private-sector created money (the red line) or “money created from nothing”. The blue line, credit, is the annual change in debt.

Figure 1 UK Debt and Credit from

Risk and speculation

Private credit is but one way of seeing the character of capitalism that we have experienced in the UK for the last forty or so years. Another way of framing this is through considering value extraction through speculation.

Speculation, originally a word to denote the sensory experience of sight and vision, has also come to mean seeing into the future or drawing abstract conclusions about what might happen. In the Netherlands in the early seventeenth Century, there was one of the world’s first speculative economic events – Tulip Mania. This was a result of advances in the Dutch financial and banking system and the introduction of futures trading rather than the existing existential bills of exchange. This meant that buyers could buy produce that had not already been grown or commodities that had not already been made and it was possible to sell that contract before the goods had been received. This permitted a speculative market based on what something might be worth in the future. The value of futures contracts was dependent on the confidence that traders had in the valuations of future worth.

Tulip Mania resulted in a speculative bubble in which investors obsessively speculated on the price of tulip bulbs and it is believed, at the peak, prized bulbs were equivalent to the price of a family home in Amsterdam. Whether this is true or not, we do know that in the end the bubble burst and many people lost everything and more.

What we see here is an emergent relationship between risk and capital, or at least the emergent practices for financial speculation. Like all subsequent bubbles it is those with the most accurate and most up-to-date information who can extract value. The ‘punters’ are easily left without shirts, or homes or with debts.

Future value and risk

Humans, as conscious beings, have a propensity to become preoccupied with the future.

Hundreds of millennia before cities, agriculture and the other civilisational trappings with which we presently identify the human, Palaeolithic humans ‘awoke to the predicament of ourselves in time’ (Frank 2011: xviii). This predicament marks the realisation that irrespective of what we do in life, death marks the finitude of earthly existence. Our inherent ‘being-towards-death’ (Heidegger 2010) is the inevitable context of all human action and the driving force behind ‘our determination to live in such a fashion that we transcend our tragic limitation’ (McManners 1981: 2). (Stevens, 2015, p. 44).

The preoccupation with future outcomes becomes increasingly pronounced at the same time as capitalism develops during the early part of the modern period. A little later, mathematical grounding was developed by the Bernoulli brothers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The new theory considered both probability and consequences – that is, not just the likelihood of something happening but also what might happen, or the utility of outcomes. And here we see the beginnings of risk modelling, and alongside the emergence of humanistic Enlightenment rationality: a seduction into the belief that world can be tamed by an abstract model. The flip side of the coin to risk (as it were) is uncertainty – which is the reality that we really don’t know what will happen in the future.

Frank Knight’s 1921 book, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, makes the distinction between calculable predictions and the incalculable unpredictable. This locates a site of entrepreneurship, where risk can be modelled. And much of the latter half of the twentieth century has strongly featured risk models as part of financialization: sophisticated insurance products, hedges, swaps and spread betting. These are the means by which ‘risk’ is monetised or in Marxian terms how the means by which value can be extracted.

Risk modelling can be compared to land enclosure, primitive accumulation or in David Harvey’s terms accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2004) but at an abstract level. We are dispossessed of agency on abstract matters where a proprietary model can be used to quantify risk. Effectively we pay rent on these functions: any financial transaction we are engaged in has a risk valuation attached to it, so there is a rent or interest to charged to us. Uncertainty is like a wilderness beyond the ‘enclosed’ risk, it is ignored because profit cannot be made from it, in the same way the rents cannot be charged for the wilderness that is beyond that which is enclosed.

We have seen then an expansion of financial risk modelling as part of daily life in an advanced economy. However, a latter turn has been the socialisation of risk as identified by Giddens amongst others (Reddy, 1996).

While the socialisation of risk suggests that we are sharing risk, what it really means is that the state is not underwriting risk as a result of fiscal conservatism and austerity. The state is no longer, as Francis Baring put it, the lender of last resort in the sense that quantifiable modelled risk has been appropriated by the private sector. Yet, the state is the lender of last resort in regard to uncertainty. The response of the UK and US governments to the collapse of banks during the Global Financial Crisis illustrates this. Leading up to this the state allowed the banking and financial sector to model, monitor, manage and self-regulate society’s risk. When it was found that they couldn’t, and hadn’t, the state then had to underwrite the consequences of the uncertainty that the financial sector had ignored. And they had ignored it because uncertainty unlike risk offers no opportunity for value to be extracted. Subsequently the UK government socialised the losses.

The valorisation of risk and higher education as a derivative market

Value extraction from risk is reminiscent of Marx’s conceptualisation of value extraction through M-M’ – money begets money (Marx, 1867/1981) i.e. through transformation and transactions relating to money. The calculation and modelling of risk does itself become a kind of commodity (I am not going to delve into this here, but it does have the characteristics of money too, as an exchangeable representation of worth). It is also dependent on who calculates the risk (power, authority and trustworthiness) that influences ‘worth’ of the risk. From this then we have a market for risk, venture capital and credit, with margins of relative worth, of different financial products, and therefore a means of extracting value by brokering the sale and purchase derivative financial products.

For example, when a wealthy and well-established university (or one of its colleges) decides to issue a bond to raise capital, it is not just a credit transaction, but a credit transaction that has with it a quantification or model of associated risk. What financial institutions are looking for is low risk loans to balance up riskier loans. The financial institution can then offset low-risk lending with higher-risk speculation and venture. The overall assessment of the financial institution’s viability is used then to attract investors and raise capital. For a university raising capital having a low-risk (or high credit rating) means that they can borrow at a low rate. In turn, the university can construct buildings with the capital and secure rents from their operations e.g. teaching and research.

Effectively, the 1988 Education Reform Act and subsequent policy has transformed England’s university into a derivatives market from previously being a public provision. And the risk of this enterprise is socialised amongst staff and students. Indeed, uncertainty is also socialised, because it will be staff and students that will make the personal and financial sacrifice when higher education institutions fail.

The discipline of de-risking in the University

De-risking presents a new form of disciplinary regime within public institutions. The socialisation of risk involves workers having to manage the contribution to perceived organisational risk. Risk is passed down, individuals within the organisation, as much as they might be seen as a unit of entrepreneurship, are also a unit of risk. In higher education this manifests as casualisation – an army of precarious post-docs, research assistants, zero-hours contract teachers, temporary workers and precarious support staff. They can be hired and fired and short notice. The hiring institution can limit the variability of labour capital and avoid over capacity. It can maximise income from branding, intellectual property and, as I have already pointed out, the securing of rent from capital investment in buildings. The central university is taking a rent for all the teaching and research activity, as a return on capital investment.

De-risking in the Faculty of Education

The riskier (the uncertain aspects of the university operations) that is the actual teaching and research has increasingly seen the risk underwritten by the staff and students. The initial teacher education programme (the postgraduate certificate in education, PGCE), is highly regarded. It recently received the highest grading by the inspectorate, Ofsted, who took the unusual step of not making any recommendations on how to improve the programme. The current and previous Vice Chancellors have heaped praise on the PGCE programme, it aligns closely with University’ mission of ‘doing good things’. It is one of the few areas in which scholarship and teaching are directly engaged with disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people. Consequently, the programme is complex, it involves managing partnerships with schools and having working relationships with individuals across institutions. It relies heavily on establishing and maintaining mutual understanding, resolving disputes and conflict, managing competing priorities and different purposes and ensuring there is a shared understanding of the programme. Inherently, it is risky, or to be consistent with the definitions that I have already used, it is uncertain. Necessarily, with such complexity and uncertainty, the PGCE requires financial support and a long-term commitment to it from the faculty and the university. However, within the risk-averse practices of university of administration, it is not forthcoming. What is experienced then by the staff is an allusion toward possible closure of the course (unless you make it successful). It is not what the university is going to do support the programme, the question is put to the staff – what are you going to do to make the programme a success? This is the institutional socialisation of risk. Of course the University is happy to enhance the worth of its brand with such a programme, but only if the staff working on it are prepared to take the responsibility for it. Responsibilities which include large workloads, managing complex relationships and presenting the programme in its best light to the government’s inspectorate. And over time we have seen the number of academics working on the PGCE diminish and replaced by part time teaching associates who are on more precarious teaching-only contracts.

There is a similar story to be told with the undergraduate education ‘tripos’ programme. A rich and complex interdisciplinary bachelors degree course. There are similar ongoing questions about its viability or how it can be simplified and rationalised. There are significant numbers of hourly paid supervisors and teaching-only contract lecturers.

There is a danger that the discipline of de-risking could result in the Education Faculty being a rarefied grad school, and with increasingly more evaluative research, research contracts with business, governments and the third sector, rather than asking the fundamental questions about education and its role in society.

I will conclude with Susan Robertson and Chris Muellerleile’s conclusion in their book chapter Universities, the risk industry and capitalism: a political economy critique:

… we need a different conceptual grammar to talk about the transformation of the university in the 21st Century; one that has the potential to recover the revolutionary potential of the academy in creating knowledge – without reverting to a script that romances the pre-1970s academy. This means also putting risk in its place socially, politically and economically. It means resisting the temptation to talk of the calculating university, as if this was an ontological state of being. Instead we need to see risk imaginaries, technologies and tools, as either wittingly or unwittingly being promoted or legitimated by those who benefit from the growth of the risk industry (Robertson & Muellerleile, 2016, p. 20).


Harvey, D. (2004). The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession. Socialist Register, 40 The new imperial challenge, 63–85.

Marx, K. (1981). Capital: a critique of political economy. (D. Fernbach, Trans.) (Vol. 1). London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review. (Original work published 1867)

Reddy, S. G. (1996). Claims to expert knowledge and the subversion of democracy: the triumph of risk over uncertainty. Economy and Society, 25(2), 222–254.

Robertson, S. L., & Muellerleile, C. (2016). Universities, the risk industry and capitalism: a political economy critique. In R. Normand & J.-L. Derouet (Eds.), A European politics of education: perspectives from sociology, policy studies and politics (submitted manuscript, pp. 122–139). New York, NY: Routledge.

Stevens, T. (2015). Cyber security and the politics of time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Government has left a void in education, teachers and educators must assume responsibility

The minority Conservative government is teetering. They have no authority, they have no programme and they have no ideas. The Queen’s speech today was thin, the Conservative General Election manifesto has been ditched. The Queen’s speech intended to allow government to cling to power. So weakened is Theresa May and the Conservative government, it looks like they could collapse at any time.

Since we are without an effective government, it is time for educators to act. We have a duty to provide authority in education, to establish principles, uphold values and implement programmes, in the absence created by an ineffectual minority government. This authority must be assumed collaboratively, deliberatively and democratically, underpinned by scholarship in its broadest sense.

We have been restrained by neoliberalism and disciplined through centralised high-stakes accountability and punitive testing regimes. Consent for this has collapsed. Public acceptance of austerity and neoliberalism has dramatically declined. People want the public services to be well-funded and to serve humanity, rather than serving a few who run them as outsourced business.

Educators now have a new responsibility for their profession and for state education.

For those working in schools, further education and higher education it is time to push back against the economic and intellectual oppression that has characterised the last seven years. It is time to become active within unions and start to organise. We need education to be a democratic, values-based and a community-oriented public service.

In the last few weeks we have seen Tory economic legitimacy crumbling. The need to cut spending and impose austerity has been revealed as a mechanism of exploitation. The yolk of austerity and neoliberalism is slowly being lifted from our shoulders as we come to realise that it has no power to exploit us and exploit our public services.

We need to mobilise across education and demand that schools are properly funded. School funding must keep pace with inflation and increasing pupil numbers. We need to ensure that teachers pay and conditions are improved so that the job becomes manageable, enjoyable and a profession that teachers can sustain long term. This will improve recruitment and retention and ensure that children receive high quality education with teachers who are not overworked, tired and stressed.  We need effective democracy in state education so that teachers have a greater role in school governance, operations and in local and national policy. We need to move away from a system that puts the control of schools and policy into the hands of small numbers of people who are not directly accountable to the communities who they serve and school stakeholders.

This is a time of great change. Therefore, it is incumbent on those working in education to take responsibility and wrest control of education from centralised neoliberalism and give that control to communities, learners and education professionals.

Go now, meet with colleagues, organise and start putting forward your collective vision for an inclusive education, for greater democracy and social justice.


Interesting addition to this. Following this post from Geoff Barton.

I recognised the ‘space’ referred to by Geoff as similar to the void I saw develop above.

Rather than trying to respond to Teach Talks in 140 characters, I thought I would do it here, since it reflects the general flavour of this post about the void left by government or as Geoff Barton said, the space created by the Queen’s Speech. I want to address the secondary questions ‘can a weak government lead to greater uncertainty?’ And ‘should we look at a Finnish multi party system?’

The government is weakened and this means that it cannot impose an ideology-driven economic, social and education policy. It is weak in the sense that it cannot set the agenda, it necessarily has to support the democratic demands of the people and show that it is being fair and reasonable in doing this and in managing conflicting interests. It is incumbent on the education sector to define, using deliberative democratic processes, what the range of educational philosophy is and how that will operationalise. This strengthens the hand of the democratic governance of state education. What it is has to be is more defined by what communities and stakeholders (including the teaching profession) want.

In terms of having a cross-party approach, I agree in principle but it is necessary that education has strong democratic governance and is able to negotiate a shared vision for education. The opportunity here for democratic self-governing system can help contribute to this.

There are great opportunities here and organisations like ASCL and the teaching unions will have a pivotal role.

This changes everything

I was feeling numb at five minutes to ten last Thursday. I had been campaigning intensely for the Labour party – both professionally and in a personal capacity – for months. It came up on Twitter, the mainstream media were saying that exit polls predicted a hung parliament. And while the Conservative party were predicted to be the largest party, the result for me marked a major change in British politics. It was going to be an exciting night.

So it turned out. As the results came in through the night it was clear that Labour had increased its share of the vote from April polls of about 25 per cent to 40 per cent in the General Election. This was unprecedented.

What is so significant, is the election result demonstrates strong support for a radically different economic and social policy. Radically different from the consensus that had existed between the major parties since the 1970s.

Keynes is back baby. The manufactured consent around a liberal/ neoliberal political economy which focuses on controlling public-sector spending and facilitating wealth creation has been shaken to its core. Particularly because it was the cause of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and it prompted the austerity approach adopted by the Coalition government and Tory governments from 2010 to 2017. Neoliberalism and austerity has undermined public services and exacerbated inequality.

When I say Keynes is back, I mean that we stop the purblind view of the importance of wealth creators, but begin to look again at the role of government spending in creating demand. Wealth creators cannot attract wealth unless ordinary people have sufficient money to purchase things in the economy.

Government can increase that wealth through redistribution (e.g. progressive taxation), increased investment in the economy (e.g. through infrastructure, health and education) and more robust regulation of the financial sector (addressing exploitation of private debt). Since the UK government has a sovereign currency it can use its capacity to spend, tax and regulate to rebalance the economy.

Keynes is back, but it’s been upgraded by contemporary economists. I have written about it in the following posts:

The consequence for teachers, educators and academics is that we have to start thinking differently. We have to think about what education might look like in a post-neoliberal world. Some of my thoughts are in the following post:

Since the Labour Party’s positive manifesto has been welcomed by the country, we must now go further and think about how we transform our education system. Transform from a marketised, privatised and commodified system into a democratic system that serves communities and the nation in an inclusive way. Paying attention to social justice, peace, environment, community cohesion and individual and collective intellectual development. A system that must effectively serve people more and serve less those that run and control it.

Exciting times, I look forward to the debate.


Responding to Teach First’s Social Mobility Report

In many ways I was pleased to see the publication of the Teach First report on social mobility. The publication of this analysis is important in drawing attention to the problems of inequality and social mobility in education.

But it also annoyed me greatly. Because I see that the levels of inequality and lack of social mobility are a result of successive governments’ economic choices. We have, since the 1970s, in the UK and the USA particularly, adopted a system of liberal economics, neoliberalism. The aim has been to reduce the size of the state with controls on public spending and the transfer of public-sector services and nationalised industry to the private sector.

The result of the adoption of neoliberalism has led to an increase in inequality as a result of controls on public spending, regressive taxation and the deregulation of the financial sector  . The barriers to social mobility are attributable to economic inequality . The adoption of neoliberalism creates a system whereby value flows from the less well off to the wealthiest.

As part of reducing the role of the state, public-sector provision has been transferred to private ownership, in the case of Academy schools, or new private-sector not-for-profit provision has been created, as in the case of Teach First. Teach First, like other forms of outsourced public provision, is a product of neoliberal thinking. Teach First’s proposition is that through the deployment of high-achieving individuals in schools, the effects of disadvantage can be mitigated.

I believe this to be wrong, since it is only through economic policy that inequality and poor social mobility can be addressed. That is not to say we don’t need good schools for all and in them skilled professionals, but it is important that we address society’s problems with appropriate policy making as a priority.

Neoliberalism can’t solve the problems created by neoliberalism. It is a paradox. It is with this in mind I was reminded of a great literary paradox and, as you will see, the striking similarities this has with outsourcing the solutions to neoliberal inequality.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1962) is a dark satirical comedy set in an American airbase in Italy at the end of the Second World War. The story follows the main character Captain John Yossarian and his associates, as they participate in a seemingly endless number of bombing missions over Germany. The ‘Catch-22’, the novel’s leitmotiv, and a term subsequently absorbed into the English language, is a paradox. It is first expressed in the novel thus:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

World War II, although often seen as a geopolitical war, was the consequence of the economic conditions in the preceding period. Liberal economics had prevailed, with substantial deregulation of the financial sector. Speculation and credit ran rife. The bubble burst in 1929, this plunged the US into a deep recession and took much of Europe with it. The instability created by a crisis of capitalism led to the Second World War.

These conditions are not unlike those that led up to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and also the inequality we have in the UK now.

Milo Minderbinder, a comrade of Yossarian, is an entrepreneur, a war profiteer. Heller presents him as a symbol of the American capitalist Dream. Initially, Minderbinder’s syndicate, M & M Enterprises appears small and benign. It involves selling and buying eggs in a complex series of profitable transactions. While flying a mission, Yossarian asks Milo why he buys eggs from Malta for seven cents and sells them to the mess hall for five cents. Milo explains that he does it to make a profit. Perplexed, Yossarian asks if he then loses two cents on each egg. Milo explains:

But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share (Milo Minderbinder, p. 265).

Yossarian thinks he is beginning to understand, he asks if the people Milo sells to are making a profit of two and three quarter cents when they sell them back to him for seven cents. He asks: “Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you and eliminate the people you sell them to?” Milo responds: “Because I am the people I buy them from.” Milo further explains that he initially buys the eggs in Sicily for a cent each. He makes profit of six cents on each egg overall, except when he sells to the mess hall where he makes four cents. The convoluted process is simply to expand the reach of his business activity.

Arguably this is not dissimilar to the complex contractual arrangements we have with outsourced service providers and academy chains. None of which, like Milo, make a personal profit. There is a contract in which Milo’s syndicate benefits from the activity of the enterprise. Similarly, with outsourced business, through its not-for-profit activity, society supposedly benefits.

“Really?” You ask.

“Yes, really.” I say. “Well, make your own mind up.”

However, Milo like all capitalists expands his business. M & M Enterprises are contracted by the Germans to carry out bombing raids for them. The enemy outsources their combat to the enemy. The Americans then end up fighting on both sides in the battle at Orvieto, and bombing their own squadron at Pianosa. At one point Minderbinder orders his fleet of aircraft to attack his own base, killing many American officers and enlisted men.

I did not realise, when I first read Catch-22 as a teenager, how Heller captured the deep irony of capitalism and liberal economics. That the suffering and damage it creates also provides opportunity for profit and capital accumulation.

The mechanisms by which we employ outsourced providers, like Teach First, to address inequality is a business scheme that capitalises on economic failure. If we address the economic issues, we would not need an enterprise to provide the service, the resources could be absorbed into the public sector to contribute to quality education for all.

I  do not wish to denigrate the many good people who work for and have trained with Teach First. No doubt, their motives are good. They want to do the best for the students they teach. My criticisms here, are at the level of political economy and policy, where I challenge the assumption that within neoliberalism it is possible to create educational programmes that promote social mobility and mitigate for inequality that is, itself, a consequence of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism can’t solve neoliberalism. It’s a catch-22, we have to change the economic system.


Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. Penguin Books.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone. Penguin Books.

The problem of behaviour in schools: initial thoughts on the Bennett Report

This is a quick response to the following report:

A review group was commissioned in 2015 by the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, to look at content in initial teacher education. The group was chaired by independent education expert Tom Bennett. This report on behaviour in schools is an adjunct to that work.

The premise of the report is that attention to behaviour in schools has been relatively neglected. The report, after the weighing-up of selected evidence, concludes that “There is sufficient evidence to suggest that there is enough of a problem nationally with behaviour for it to be a matter of concern” (p. 21). It goes on to characterise ‘bad’ behaviour as “…behaviour that detracts from the academic and social success of the school community, along with behaviour that diminishes the dignity of staff or students (for example harassment or name-calling)” (p. 22).

There is careful consideration of whether insisting on good behaviour is oppressive. It links good behaviour with the characteristics of self-restraint and self-regulation. That to be free we have to learn to master these abilities.

There is no examination of the social, anthropological and sociological processes through which a child learns to behave well, as an effective learner and scholar, and with due respect to peers and adults. However, the means are implied in the characterisation of the features of effective schools.

The features of effective schools include: strong and effective leadership which  communicates a clear vision. I assume that this vision is a view of the culture of the school in terms of observable good behaviours. This implies a high level of conformity, but as Bennett stresses in this report this compliance does not amount to oppression.

There is a clear link made between ‘good’ behaviour and performance in examination results. I imagine the assumption is that if school leaders and managers can observe  good behaviour and that examination success is achieved, this is evidence enough of school effectiveness. I think bigger questions about the purpose of education need to be addressed here.

The pracitices underpinning the school-level approach include a full commitment and belief in the systems of behaviour management; a commitment to its consistent implementation; attention to detail in its application and that routines and rules are practiced and emphasised.

The establishment and repitition of routines appear at the heart of Bennett’s effective behaviour management process. This is consistent with a behvarioust view of learning. It is a conditioning process in which behavioural models are presented and a system of sanctions are used to ensure that pupils develop automatic responses in situations in the school. This create social norms within the school.

At some point, someone has to decide what behaviour is appropriate in order to construct a routine for the school. Someone, presumably, has to decide that there is a particular way in which pupils must move about the school and how they respond in lessons. The difficulty is in finding the limits to this programming: in which aspects does behaviour have to be legitimised and programmed? Where do individuals have the opportunity to act of their own volition and exercise agency and control?

It begs the same question that is raised at the beginning of the report, is this oppressive? Tom Bennett is rightly sensitive about this issue. I am not assured that has been answered fully. It is necessary to consider it in developmental terms: the appropriate level of behavioural control and whether this is compatible with human development. This report does not address this critical concern.

There is limited evidence that compliance in this way necessarily leads to the development of self-regulation. Self-regulation is developed through exercising agency and constructing our own models of behavioural response . We have to be very careful that we do not suppress this in a highly compliant setting. That would amount to oppression, to the extent that it is an abuse of human rights.

Teachers, especially trainees, must have the opportunity to develop a profound understanding of a range of disciplines that underpin children’s and young people’s developmental processes. It is inadequate, as teacher preparation, to present behavioural management as the effective implementation of desired models, routines and processes. These are necessary but a long way short of sufficient.

For many children the desired behaviours that are encouraged in a school are highly consistent with their social and cultural experience. This is the essence of what is lazily referred to as ‘normal’ behaviour. It is also consistent with what this report refers to as ‘good’ behaviour. Many schools centre around the British middle class; British middle class teachers enacting British middle class values and norms. To comply with this is manageable for many students even from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And even from different social classes. But for many reasons a significant proportion of children in our schools find it harder to comply. The social norms, the cutural context, the physicality and the cognitive demands are incompatible in so many ways. Often the the underlying reason for their non-conformity (‘bad’ behaviour) is undiagnosed, they are not recognised in an official sense as having a special educational need. It is unsurprising that students, whether they are recognised as having specific needs or not, or that they are from particular socio-economic and ethnic groups, become excluded. Whether that is a formal or informal exclusion.

The answer to this, in this report, is to be robust in ensuring that these pupils observe and accept the models of acceptable behaviour. It is suggested that, and alluded to, in the introduction of this report that we have not been doing this well enough. That teacher educators have not been making the simple truths of behaviour management more plain.

I am afraid that this, and the underlying premise of the report, are an oversimplication of the problems teachers and schools face in respect to pupils’ behaviour. It does not recognise the delicate balance of emotion, motivation, cognition and behaviour. Bandura has been a key contributor in the identification of the sophisticated reciprocity between social environment, cognition and behaviour. That in order to act in a particular way we have to have both knowledge, i.e. models of behaviour, and the belief that we are going to be successful. We need a supportive environment in which we develop confidence in our behaviours. We need to have faith that compliance will lead us to success. This is not just in an artificial sense such as being successful in examinations, it also needs to be related to deeper human fulfilment.

As part of their development, children need to have confidence to adapt and deviate from norms.

It is less effective, and often not effective at all, if we are presented with models of behaviour, with external motivations to comply, such as rewards and punishments. For many children it works for them, that’s how schools traditionally work. But for a significant proportion it simply does not foster self-regulation (as Bandura would call it, self-efficacy). It will work for some schools, it will not work for all schools and it will especially not work for schools in particular contexts.

What this report does is emphasise a traditional model of behaviour management and it suggests that if it is done more strictly, with greater attention and more seriously, then behaviour will improve. What I am saying is that this model is obsolete, it is of the past. We need to be moving forward.

There has never been a more important time, we need progressive and more sophisticated approaches to behaviour management. It is a complex and difficult world that children are growing up in. There are more challenges for them than for the previous couple of generations. We need to foster students’ capacity to live together and solve some of society’s problems (I don’t think Tom Bennett and I disagree on this, it’s just the means). For this they need knowledge, confidence, character, communication skills, problem-solving skills and reasoning skills.

To do this effectively, schools cannot be rigid and austere institutions of the past. They need the capacity to innovate in practice, they need to encourage curiosity, they need to be inclusive. This needs to be underpinned by a system of values, principles, flexibility and age-appropriate democratic participation. Teachers need to have a deep and critical understanding of disciplinary knowledge as well as in psychology, anthropology and sociology, at least.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.

The learning styles debate: a triumph of rationality over criticality

A number of well-meaning and well-intentioned neuroscientists and psychologists signed a letter in today’s Guardian saying that the concept of Learning Styles has no evidential base. Learning styles are well and truly debunked.

I don’t disagree.

What alarms me is the prioritisation and politicisation of this issue. Learning styles have been attributed, as a bête noire, by neoconservative educators, as dangerous and foolish – a symbol of the maleficence of progressive education.

For the neoconservative educator, the destruction of learning styles represents a victorious battle in a war against progressive education. The fiction is that a progressive cabal has imposed such monstrous practices on teachers, for example: learning styles, group work and discovery learning. And science, when done properly and rigorously leads to the destruction of these myths, one-by-one. Science will destroy progressivism in death by randomised control trial.

Educational neoconservativism is a broad coalition. It includes the teacher who simply wants authority in their own classroom, who is apolitical. The egoistic demagogic rationalist, who sees opportunity in elevating themselves amongst traditionally-oriented teachers. The knowledge evangelicals, who claim to be apolitical, and it is simply about truth and giving (disadvantaged) children access to powerful knowledge through a conservative canon. There is an unholy alliance – whether it be inadvertent or by volition –  with the libertarian freemarket right wing, intent on the commidification of knowledge and the privatisation of state education.

Because, for the freemarketeer, there is nothing that suits economic rationalism more than procedural rationalism, i.e. the rationality of neoconservative education.

Learning styles were introduced into schools in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s. Their introduction was part of an attempt to develop personalisation, the identification of sensory preferences for the formulation of learning experience. Learning style identification was streamlined into an easily implemented questionnaire and data was kept and used by teachers to inform the planning of their lessons. To make them aurally, kinaesthetically or visually oriented for learners’ various preference.

The context of the introduction of learning styles in England was against a backdrop of  a cross-party consensus on neoliberal reforms. Marketisation through competition, commodification of knowledge and pedagogy and per-pupil funding, creating a quasi-voucher scheme. Learning styles under New Labour in the 2000s were typical of Michael Barber’s deliverology, where policy could be turned into prescribed action and monitored in the extent to which it was implemented. A way of showing, to the electorate, that a policy such as personalisation, could be implemented through a system of rationality and accountability. There was little concern about the efficacy of the process.

Neoliberal reforms, as result of financial liberalisation, have resulted in increased wealth inequality within nations like the UK and US. Unfettered state-subsidised capitalism permit the rich to get richer, while the rest become poorer. Neoliberal reforms in education have preserved the inequality that has developed in the wider political economy. We are now in a situation where large private-sector multi-academy trusts are in receipt of public money to expand their education businesses and develop regional monopolistic control on the education of middle class pupils. Schools in more challenging areas suffer as a result of an unequal and unfair education system.

When academic colleagues launch a public attack on learning styles, I wonder why they do not take a more critical stance on what is happening in our education systems. Are learning styles – while they have many limitations – really the major issue that we have to address in education at present? Should we not be attacking the privatisation of education and the growing inequalities of society? Should we not be attacking the reduction in funding given to schools?

I fear that these scientists have been hoodwinked into a debate by neoconservatives as party to a false battle against progressivism. They may be acting in good faith and in absolute belief that science provides us with truth. I don’t know. But I do see that science can be used as an anti-intellectual force, the search for evidence and validity becomes a parochial exercise and denies the context of political and economic forces that drive things.

It is necessary that we approach evidence, causality and context with a critical eye. Otherwise we can end up focussing our energies on the relatively inconsequential, as we have done in the endless debates about learning styles. I implore all to focus on what is really damaging our education system.

The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes

I began this post prompted by what appeared to be the indifference of the progressive middle class. Oh and I had a scrap on Twitter about economics.

The argument went round in circles.

“Oh yes it is!”

“Oh no it isn’t!”

We went on.

I  consider myself a humble person. I aspire to be humble. But in this argument, I was right. I was frustrated by my progressive co-discussant’s unwillingness to engage with radical economic ideas. It puzzled me.Continue reading “The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes”

Education, policy and pedagogy: It’s the political economy stupid!

At the heart of all the main issues in education at the moment is economics. In fact economics in education has become of increasing importance and is a growing field in itself. Analysis of data to evaluate education policy has been valuable in understanding how schools perform and the achievement and a progress of different types of students, for example.

This approach is in the tradition of classical economics. Underpinning classical economics is the idea that people make rational decisions within markets. This leads to econometric models that can be used to predict the behaviour of markets and the behaviour of the economy as a whole. In education, for example, it leads to predictions about earnings following participation in school-based programmes or interventions, the study of various subjects or attendance at Higher Education.

Classical economics sets its boundaries at the edges of the economic system. It does not concern itself with the political dimensions of economics, apart from say, informing policy makers on resource allocation. This rests on its fundamental principle of rational behaviour.

If we step outside classical economics, we can still see the distributions of wealth and power that classical economists observe, but we can also begin to see the forces that create these systems. It is not simply rationality with, as Adam Smith observed, an invisible hand ensuring that all would be fair in a freemarket society. Karl Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism in the three volumes of Das Kapital showed that the freemarket does not lead to a fair or equipatable distribution of wealth. It necessarily leads to the accumulation of capital. As a consequence there is an exploited working class. And hence economy is necessarily political.

One can be forgiven for thinking that in state education political economy can be ignored. The reason we think like that is that since the end of the Second World War and until recently, we have had no reason to think differently. But now we must. I shall explain by dividing the period between 1945 and the present into three economic phases.

The first phase is from 1945 until 1970. The post-war period saw considerable government spending on health and education and sat alongside a  freemarket economy. Education was grant-funded through local authorities. This investment was seen as a benefit to society as a whole. However, from the late sixties until the 1970s, things changed. The economic context changed and public education economics had to change in response. This leads to our second economic period between 1970 and 2008.

In the 1970s, there was a change from a mixed economy with public sector spending alongside a freemarket economy to neoliberalism, where there was much greater emphasis on the freemarket. During the early seventies there was a crisis in capitalism, in the UK this was characterised by inflation, decreasing company profits and increasing wage demands by the work force. In the end the unions lost, their pay was controlled and businesses were able to maintain their profits to some degree. The worst outcome was that the economic crisis was erroneously blamed on the unions, inefficient nationalised companies and a supposedly bloated public sector. When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, she famously took on the unions, began privatising nationalised companies and reducing the size of the public sector. Underpinning this was the belief privatisation and marketisation was the best way to run our public services. The invisible hand would do its job. Neoliberalism was the political economy that continued until 2008. It was adopted by New Labour in 1997 and was supplemented by an increase in public spending. Although much capital spending in schools was from private capital. For large businesses, neoliberalism created opportunities to profit from public-sector services and subsidised by the state.

The preoccupation through this period of neoliberalism has been on the deficit in public sector finances. That is the difference between tax revenues and government spending. The preoccupation with eliminating deficit spending and an attempt to return a surplus in public finances has the effect of reducing private sector surpluses (I explain this in more depth here). In other words private sector borrowing has to increase, households become more indebted, house prices inflate. This creates demand in the economy (consumers are debt spending) and the banks profit. In 2008 this whole sorry pile of private debt was found to be overvalued and the big banks had to be bailed out by the state. Once again capitalism is in crisis. But the financial crisis of 2008 was a symptom of underlying problems brought about by neoliberalism itself.

The neoliberal period of unregulated freemarket capitalism has resulted in increased wealth inequality, while the richest 10 per cent or so, have got richer the rest have got poorer or are carrying considerable debt. Inequality in society is indicative of a divided and unhealthy society. Wealth and income inequality leads to democratic inequality, where the wealthy are in a position to influence government much more than the less well off. It also leads to health and education inequalities. Furthermore, it leads to a less productive society since there is less investment in workers and their development.

We find ourselves in period of post-capitalism or post-neoliberalism, the collapse of centrist politics is indicative of this also. No longer is the status quo working for a large proportion of society, this is evident in the election of an unequivocally anti-austerity leader of the opposition, and more dramatically the referendum result that will ultimately lead us out of the EU. This was the precipitation of an anti-establishment and anti-status quo vote.

In terms of the character of education, the three economic periods (public sector, neoliberalism and post-capitalism) have shaped schools and pedagogy in particular ways. During the public-sector period (1945 – 1970) practices and organisations were emergent, but drew heavily on the approaches used in traditional establishments, like for example, the grammar school. In an attempt to address diverse social needs and with new ideas developing in the fledgling field of education research, there were attempts to address individual needs using student-centred practices. However, the mainstay of educational practice drew on traditional teacher-centred practices, because it is much easier to prepare for and to manage classrooms.

The neoliberal period (1970 – 2008) can be characterised by increasing accountability, increasing managerialism and perfomativity. The emphasis on accountability means that teachers are expected to ensure students achieve targets and expectations in terms of progress and examination results. There is increased surveillance and attempts to identify effective practice in terms of progress and attainment. In the 2000s this extended to a prescription of classroom practice and pedagogy. While practice remains largely traditional, there are elements of progressive student-centred teaching, but on the whole the latter, apart from among enthusiasts, was superficial. The importance of the social aspects of learning, such as discussion and dialogue, the importance of affect and motivation and the recognition of constructivist learning were recognised and mandated in official views of pedagogy. However, given the demands placed on teachers and the intensity, as a result of being held increasingly accountable for students’ results, these elements were only really implemented in a performative way, to please observers and inspectors rather than placing them at the heart of education.

The post-capitalism period (2008 – present) continues a neoliberal theme, but it does not hide the crisis beneath. Since 2010 the Coalition government and the  Conservative government from 2015, have extended the privatision projects brought in by previous governments. Academies are effectively outsourced education service providers to the state. There is increased emphasis on quantifiable outcomes to monitor the quality of the service provided by schools. In an attempt to make the educational commodity more clearly defined the student-centred aspects of pedagogy have been abandoned and even vilified. The emphasis has been increasingly on narrowly defined definitions of knowledge and the reduction of learning to a process of memorisation of increasingly complex facts. The crisis beneath this, within the post-capitalist school, is the overall reduction in teachers’ pay and conditions, longer working hours, excessive workloads and deprofessionalisation. The recruitment and retention of teachers is increasingly challenging. There are also deep concerns about the impact of intense school experiences on children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Economically, we move into a post-capitalist post-neoliberal world in which economic, technological, social and political forces are undermining existing approaches. Yet the government continues to press ahead with a privatised and marketised approach to education. What we need to do is develop schools and educational practices to respond to community needs in a more holistic way and to draw on contemporary understanding of learning in terms of culture, socialisation and cognitive development. We cannot return to public sector nationalisation of state education, but we must reduce the managerialism and hierarchical structures of schools and academy chains and improve the working conditions and professionalism of teachers. They can be mutualised as community co-operatives, to devolve decision making and to collaborate with communities. This is an antidote to the corporate managerialism of the neoliberal period. While schools cannot mitigate for wealth inequality, they can connect with local communities and help develop confidence and build social and cultural capital. Austerity (deficit reduction) is a political choice and not consistent with the post-capitalist period we find ourselves in (I elaborate on this in a previous post here).

The driving force in state education is political economy and by considering economic and political forces, not only can we better understand policy, practice and pedagogy, we can better design schools and learning to respond to the political economy in which we live.