Blob life: overwhelmed by knowledge

Yesterday, at about 4pm, work kind of ground to a halt. I found myself distracted, with a nagging feeling that I should be revising a paper, but not actually being able to bring myself to it.

I did the pretty routine job of dealing with emails, emails that did not require much conscious thought. Satisfying in terms of production and job completion, but soulless and not deeply satisfying.

I looked at my bookshelves, books that I had collected on education and mathematics education. Books that I had inherited from my predecessor who was retiring. Books that I had picked up from other members of the faculty as they retired.

2016-11-18-09-59-20I thought to myself, “there are lots of these books that I haven’t actually read.” I began pulling them off the shelves. Finding things that I didn’t know I had, a book on gender and mathematics and a book on parents and maths. The gender book will be useful for a masters student and the other a colleague will find interesting. I leave them on the table.

By 4.30pm I was getting committed to a book sort. Should have been something I was doing at the beginning of the day. I was starting to pile up and collate books in themes. Certainly ‘research methods’ is an important and regularly used section, so are my class, society, social justice, sociology books, and then there are my psychology and learning books. Oh and the books on professional learning and professional development. I was pleased with the slightest semblance of emergent order. But it was all late in the day.

I lingered a while on Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. I had been reading about Scruton’s influence on education in the 1970s and 1980s. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read it there and then and my office was now trashed in a minor way (enough disorder not to be ordered).

I was overwhelmed with all the knowledge that was there on my shelf, and how much human effort had been used to generate it. What’s the point? No one lives long enough to read all this stuff. How do we make use of all this knowledge to improve education?

Perhaps I can write a book about it.


Capital and privatised schools

This is part three of my series of blogs which presents a critique of the privatisation of schools in England. In the first part I argued how the Education Reform Act (1988) created, effectively, a voucher plan for schools, a market was created, with per-pupil funding and specification of what schools as private operators would provide as a service, through the introduction of a national curriculum and national assessments. Following this, and having shown how the market was created, in the second part I use Marx’s theory of political economy to show the creation of knowledge commodities. My purpose for introducing the idea of commodity is to show how schools have become capitalist enterprises, outside of the state, and in turn how this has an impact on teachers’ working conditions, pay and access to quality continuing professional development. Overall, in this series of posts, I want to show how the privatised state education system undermines the professional status of teachers. My discussion of teachers’ work will come in the next blog. In this blog, I want to concentrate on the idea of capital. My overall argument is that teachers’ working conditions, how capital works in market-oriented enterprises and the production and provision of commodities are interlinked components of privatisation.

So, in this post my emphasis is on capital in the context of schools. What I will show here, drawing on the work of Marx is that schools, or a chain of schools operating within a marketized system has but one option and that is to accumulate capital. But before sketching out that argument, I should explain the idea of capital.

What is capital?

The Oxford English Dictionary presents an interesting etymology. The first recorded use of capital is c1225 as relating to the head, something at-the-top, to represent the principal or chief or important person. It is interesting that these early references to the use of the term capital in English are representative of power and capacity to coerce subordinates. In the sixteenth century capital broadened its meaning to include financial assets and thereby implying a recognition of the close relationship of money and power. In the nineteenth century, it was to represent profit, advantage and power. The contemporary term, interestingly integrates two aspects, a financial component and power.

The classical political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, referred to capital but were not specific about its meaning or indeed its nature. While they both saw capital as related to production of commodities and so to labour value, but apart from recognising that individuals could accumulate capital, they did not give it further consideration. Marx, however, was more precise about what capital was, in the sense of its social function and dynamic nature. Marx, argued that capital could be money, commodities or the means of production. But it had to be in circulation, either money being used to buy commodities and subsequently sell them or, as commodities being sold to buy other commodities. Inherently within the notion of capital is exchange of commodities and money. Like Smith and Ricardo, Marx relates capital to production and the cost of labour. Therefore, within capital, there is a labour cost, since circulation involves commodities. The relationship becomes important when I discuss teachers’ pay and conditions in the next blog but for now I will park the idea here.

Capital provides the means to produce commodities and to buy labour to enable this process. In my previous post I presented an analysis of the commodification of knowledge. The National Curriculum and the existence of national assessment codify knowledge commodities. The work of a school is the transfer of knowledge commodities to students[1]. The notional contract between the student and the school is to provide a minimum addition of knowledge commodity to the child’s level of knowledge on entering the school. If the school does not fulfil its side of the contract the student can go to another school. Or, if the school is not fulfilling its notional contractual requirements, the government can ask another organisation to take responsibility.

If schools are seen as producers or as service providers in the delivery of knowledge commodities in a market, then the role of the leadership becomes that of capitalist. They have to deploy capital for the provision of the service, in other words they have to employ teachers and support staff and maintain the school buildings and market the school. But they also have to accumulate capital to expand and to maintain a competitive edge in the market.

Marx showed that necessity of capitalists to incessantly increase capital. Chapter 25 of Capital Volume 1 sets out a general theory of capital accumulation. In one sense the accumulation of capital might be seen in terms of a thirst for wealth, that no matter how wealthy you are that thirst cannot be quenched. This was the classical political economist view of capital accumulation posited by Smith and Ricardo. For Marx, with a view of capital as dynamic and as money and commodity in circulation, capital accumulation is conceptually richer. The need for accumulation is driven by the need to respond to competition, who themselves will be engaged in capital accumulation, and one significant form of capital accumulation is through expansion in order to try and dominate the market. In Marx’s day that would mean acquiring more factories. In terms of schools, it means that the capitalist school leader necessarily is driven to run more schools. It is this principle that largely underpins the growth of a Multi Academy Trust.

The number of Multi Academy Trusts has grown from 391 in 2011 to 846 by July 2015 (Hill, 2015). The Harris Federation of South London Schools and Ark Schools are two large and established academy chains. I will look at the growth of each of these in more depth. The Harris Federation has its beginnings under the Thatcher government and just after the 1988 Education Reform Act. Phillip Harris, who amassed wealth retailing carpet and furniture, was asked by Margaret Thatcher to take over Sylvan School in Crystal Palace and to establish a City Technology College (CTC) (Graham, 2013). The Harris Federation now runs 41 primary and secondary schools. It is a private limited company by guarantee, incorporated in 2007, with three subsidiaries: Harris Academies Projects Limited, HCTC Enterprises Limited and Harris Professional Services Limited. It held net assets of £343,416,000 in 2015 which has grown from £86,437,000 in 2008 when it ran 6 schools.

Ark Schools was established in 2004 and now runs 31 schools with net assets[2] of £369,539,000 (2015) which has grown from one school in 2006, its net assets were £2,292,000. Ark Schools is part of a group of operations Ark UK Programmes Limited, Ark South Africa Limited, Ark Zimbabwe Trust, Ark Uganda, Ark India and Absolute Return for Kids US, Inc (Ark US). Collectively these hold net assets of £19,389,000 and publish separate accounts to Ark Schools to satisfy the funding agreement with the Department for Education.

The growth of these and other Multi Academy Trusts has been largely achieved through the transfer of state-owned assets to these private companies. However, the accumulation of capital is usually a result of the surplus value generated by the workforce. That is the difference between the exchange value of the commodity (or service provided) and the necessary labour cost i.e. that which the worker needs to live on. It is not clear the extent to which capital is being accumulated by the growing Multi Academy Trusts since their growth, as I have said, is largely through the transfer of capital from the state. However, as I will show in the next blog the undermining of teachers’ pay and conditions can be attributed to the privatisation process. And as predicted by Marx, the exploitation of workers contributes to capital accumulation. In fact the central thesis of the three volumes of Capital is that if the freemarket and its invisible hand is allowed to prevail, capital accumulates and workers become increasingly exploited. I am applying the same thesis in the context of the privatisation of schools. First by showing that there is evidence for privatisation, second by showing that schools now involve knowledge commodities and third by showing, in this blog, the incessant and inherent need for capital accumulation within a capitalist system.

In the next blog, I look at how teachers’ pay and conditions become undermined in these conditions of privatisation. And how this has an impact on teachers’ access to continuing professional development and professionalism and professional standing.


[1] I appreciate how hard teachers work in providing a rich and fulfilling experience at school, as well as in providing pastoral support. My analysis here is abstracted to capital, commodity and labour.

[2] I accept that net assets are not equivalent to capital, but I am assuming that to illustrate capital accumulation these values for net assets are proportional to capital. The growth in net assets therefore indicates the extent of capital accumulation.


Graham, N. (2013, April 26). CarpetRight’s Lord Harris reflects on a lifetime in the rug trade. Financial Times. London.

Hill. (2015, August 31). The rise and rise of multi-academy trusts – latest DfE data. Retrieved from

The commodification of knowledge in schools

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.