The British School Wars?

Recent education reforms, proposed and undertaken by the coalition government in Britain are aimed at shifting the provision of education from state agencies to providers that are presumably part of the so-called ‘big society’ [whatever that might mean].

But its not just conservatives who would like to see the state’s role changed from being a provider to a regulator of contracts. New Labour’s third way politics may not be too far removed from this position either. Sociologist Stephen Ball describes the third way in terms of a shift from government to governance. According to him, this shift is expressed through three technologies of market, managerialism, and performativity.

So a simplistic thesis about state withdrawal from education probably does not hold in the case of England. State, under the third way, does not entirely give up its legal responsibility to provide education to all children. State’s active creation of regulated education markets cannot be construed as withdrawal. Marketisation of education is accomplished through a variety of mechanisms and regulated through contracts. Under this shift, the role of state agencies changes from provision of education to management of education contracts (New Managerialism a la Stephen Ball). Performativity involves a shift from structures to standards. That is to say, the state withdraws from creating new structures such as schools but focuses rather on establishing a set of standards which are expected to be produced by the contractors through appropriately concluded contracts with the ‘local’ agencies. (See Ball, S. (2007). Education plc.).

But how far removed are the recent reforms from the third way? I am not sure! But would like to learn more about the similarities and differences between the two. If the differences are not as substantive as the similarities, then Lynn Fendler’s comment about monetocracy makes even more sense. She says that we do not live in a political world anymore. Rather we live in a monetocracy and the apparent political debates in the public domain are more of a strategic deflection that distract us and occupy our minds so that we do not focus on the fundamental shift from politics to monetocracy that has already taken place. .

Indeed the difference in position between the partners within the coalition does not seem to be substantial even though it is made to appear as such. The internal debate in the coalition does not seem to be about whether the state schools should be contracted out to private contractors or not, but whether they should be run as profit or as non-profit outfits. But what constitutes profit is always up for grabs. The non-profit outfits are not in the game because of altruistic virtues. After all, its not that the contractors in the non-profit sector do not like money. They just book it differently. Nevertheless, Nick Clegg seems all set to trumpet his success in preventing Michael Gove (Sec State for Education) from letting the ‘free schools’ make profits. (Also see this Guardian Report).

There are also those who think that for-profit or not, handing out state schools to private sector is a bad idea. A recent addition to this perspective on education debate in England is Melissa Benn’s book School Wars. Just read a review of it in Guardian. Read it at School Wars by Melissa Benn – review | Books | The Guardian. Might make an interesting read for those interested in ‘school wars’. That is, if there are really any school wars left apart from being a ‘strategic deflection’ from the fundamental shift that has already taken place.


About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts


  1. Standards…? | Just questions! - 05/09/2011

    […] to say, they are part of what Stephen J. Ball calls a shift from government to governance (see my last post). However, a state that regulates through standards and contracts based on them is, nevertheless, a […]

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