Flow of Ideas

Caught in the Storm of Capital: Teacher Professionalism, Managerialism and Neoliberalism in Schools

Glenn Rikowski
Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton

A Paper Prepared for Education, Culture & Society (EDU3004) Students, 30th October 2006


The New Labour Government has been involved in ‘remodelling’ the teacher workforce over the last few years in an attempt to reform it as a profession (Gray and Denley, 2005, p.1). However, as Gray and Denley note:

“Are teachers truly being developed as professionals, or are they simply being trained to deliver Government policy and meet the requirements of examination syllabi?” (Ibid.).

In terms of education policy developments in England, and taking into account how the ideologies, strategies and concrete effects of both managerialism and neoliberalism in schools operate, this is not any easy question to answer. In this short article I critically explore this question.

Signs of Re-Professionalisation?

Writers and researchers such as Hill (2006) and Moreira Hypolito (2004) have stressed the ways in which teachers are being de-professionalised and proletarianised in many ways. Others, such as Porfilio and Yu (2006) and Malott (2006) point towards how teacher training are working in ways which deskill and are becoming increasingly downgraded and degraded to function as forcing houses for producing teachers chained to working to the demands of corporate capital.

However, in England there are a few signs of the re-professionalisation of the teacher role. I shall not go here into the definitions of profession, professionalism and professionalisation in detail. These definitions are examined in industrial sociology, basic sociology text books and by educational philosophers and researchers such as Carr (2000 and 2003) and Matheson (2000). However, the basic characteristics of a profession (and the working definition used here) can be drawn from this literature as consisting of the following:

1. Professions provide an important public service
2. They involve a theoretically as well as practically grounded expertise
3. They have a distinct ethical dimension which calls for a code of practice
4. They require organisation and regulation for purposes of recruitment and discipline
5. Professional practitioners require a high degree of personal autonomy – independence of judgement – for effective practice (from Rikowski, 2006, pp.2-3).

Certainly, in terms of the first and last factors there appears to be some evidence that teachers are becoming more valued members of society than hitherto. The National Teaching Awards, which get high press coverage in newspapers such as The Guardian, indicate the Government’s apparent determination to raise the status of teachers. Other signs of re-professionalisation are the tiered labour force (from Advanced Skills Teachers down to teaching assistants) giving teachers managerial responsibilities over more lowly-paid and lower status classroom assistants, the great stress on creativity (for pupils) and a corresponding greater autonomy for teachers (especially in the curriculum via earned autonomy status post-2002 Education Act), and the fact that teachers in England are now amongst the world’s higher paid (Rikowski, 2006, pp.5-6). The existence of ‘Superteachers’ – the Advanced Skills Teachers (ASTs) that receive higher pay levels and status – constitutes particularly strong evidence for teacher re-professionalisation. Furthermore, the restructuring of the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course to include two Masters level modules also hits the second criterion. Yet these developments have come at a cost, as there are signs of an increasingly fragmented, hierarchical and divided teacher workforce, especially given the ASTs (Blake, et al, 1999). In addition, these apparent boosts to teacher professionalism are undermined by a number of structural features of the schools system.

New Managerialism

One of the long term and intensifying trends that undermines attempts to re-professionalise teachers and their role is managerialism. Jackson (2006) indicates that: ‘Managerialism stresses competitiveness, accountability and audit’ (p.1). These trends threaten teacher autonomy and professionalism: the work of the teacher becomes subordinated to control, surveillance and ultimately alienation. This last phenomenon is developed by David Harvie (2006): new managerialism, especially the metrics that is an essential aspect of it, sets the teacher within a form of working life where alienation is endemic. Furthermore, argues Harvie, teachers and students become alienated from each other too, and from themselves. Even the young and initially enthusiastic are not immune. Jackson’s (2006) study of Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) suggests that budding teachers are slow to view themselves as ‘professionals’ in the light of the various restrictions and constraints on their work. This is particularly significant as new standards for classroom teachers were in operation from September 2006 which used:

“…the word ‘professional’ in relation to teachers over fifty times, suggesting that teachers are viewed as professionals by the state … [though] … the notion of ‘professional’ is not a concept which sits easily with beginning teachers” (Jackson, 2006, p.1).

At the heart of the New Managerialism is the attempt to bring in management techniques from the private to the public sector ‘in the name of economy, efficiency and effectiveness’ (Beckman and Cooper, 2004, p.4). As Beckman and Cooper indicate, for this New Managerialism:

“Social progress … is seen to lie in achieving continual increases in ‘productivity’ and management must have the freedom to plan, implement and measure its resources in any way it feels appropriate” (Ibid. – my emphasis).

The New Managerialism is sometimes incorporated within a wider movement called the New Public Management (NPM), and this is characterised by marketisation, privatisation, managerialism, performance measurement and accountability (Tolofari, 2005). As Tolofari (2005) notes, the NPM is a global phenomenon ‘influencing government policies both in developed and developing countries’ (p.75). Tolofari provides an extensive and interesting genealogy of the NPM (2005, pp.76-80) as well as the social and economic forces giving it life and strength. Beckman and Cooper (2004) set out the arguments given for the New Managerialism by its protagonists. In summary, they note that:

“Advocates of the new managerialism can make a number of claims in its defence – the need to improve the economic efficiency of organisations, avoid wastage and be responsive to the needs of a flexible ‘global market” (2004, p.4).

New Managerialism, especially when incorporated with the NPM, exudes control, measurement, continual disruption of working lives in the name of efficiency, effectiveness, surveillance and cost saving. When applied to education, as in the work of Thrupp and Willmott (2003) it is hard to reconcile New Managerialism with any substantial teacher professionalism. Yet clever New Managers sometimes dress up their underlying aims and goals in language which appeals to the ‘professionalism’ of teachers. Teachers who are professionals (it is argued by these erstwhile advocates of the sugar-coated poison pill) will be interested in making out as effective, efficient and managerially sound teachers with an eye to costs. Thrupp and Willmott’s (2003) critique of those who peddle such messages along Orwellian lines, what they call the ‘textual apologists’ for the New Managerialism, is devastating, though at times both tragic and funny in equal measure.

The way that teachers appear to be hemmed in by the New Managerialism can be off-putting to aspiring teachers, especially those who might view themselves as on the Left politically and wish to work to a social justice agenda in their practice as teachers. Tuffs (2006) addressed some of the issues involved as such an aspiring teacher. For Tuffs, the authoritarian nature of contemporary schools in England makes nurturing the radical spirit a difficult proposition. She argues that:

“Teachers have been constantly bombarded with imposed change of the education system in recent years. These changes … have contributed substantially to the deterioration of relationships experienced between children and their teachers. Without such outside pressure, perhaps teachers would be able to devote their time and attention to their students in such a way that would allow the development of trusting, healthy relationships in schools” (Tuffs, 2006, p.10).

Thus, Tuffs suggests that working in these conditions may well result in alienated relations between teachers and pupils, a point also noted by Harvie (2006). However, Tuffs concludes that as an active education worker she can make a positive difference, not just to children’s lives and learning, but to the conditions of contemporary teaching too. This will be more so to the extent that others who, like herself take the plunge into teaching in schools rather than being put off by the debilitating structural features of contemporary schooling. What is needed is a critical mass of young and not-so-young Left teachers organised and with a will and determination to put the New Managerialism and all it stands for in its place: the dustbin of history.

Education, Value and the Capitalist State

Beckman and Cooper (2004) hint at a deeper analysis of the New Managerialism in education. They argue that:

“The application of the new managerialism throughout all areas of the secondary education system has been justified as a means of cutting costs whilst simultaneously raising standards. At the same time, managerialist reforms in education have sought to give emphasis to meeting the needs of industry (to the detriment of education’s contribution to broader societal needs)” (p.5).

The dual goal of cutting costs ‘whilst simultaneously raising standards’ noted by Beckman and Cooper indicates that schools are being recast under the law of value, after Karl Marx’s rendition of this concept. Now, as Steve Wright (2005) says, ‘Marx himself rarely spoke of such a law’ (p.38), but:

“…there is no doubt of his opinion that, under the rule of capital, the amount of labour time socially necessary to produce commodities ultimately determined their value … [And that] … Marx also reminds us that capital is itself nothing other than accumulated labour time (abstract labour as value)” (Wright, 2005, pp.38-39).

Thus, it is not the actual time labourers take to produce a commodity (or a part thereof) that is crucial. If it was then the slowest and most indolent labourers would produce the most value incorporated in commodities! This does not accord with the reality of everyday production in capitalist society. Workers are compelled by human representatives of capital (managers) to produce as quickly as possible at lowest cost. Hence, Marx establishes that it must be socially necessary labour time, the socially average labour time it takes to produce a commodity that is the basis of value in capitalist society (see Neary and Rikowski, 2000 and 2003). Firms where workers are producing at below the socially average time it takes to produce the commodity will find that they have trouble selling it and realising its value on the market as it costs more to produce than that of the socially average for that commodity. This is why managers ever urge on workers to save labour time in production. This ‘law’ of value, therefore, governs production of commodities in capitalist society. In concrete terms, the law of value: ‘is characterised by “minimum costs and maximum production”. It doesn’t matter what products you produce’, notes Andrew Kliman (2006, p.2 in online version). Therefore, notes Kliman:

“As long as the law of value exists, producers will need to compete effectively, and therefore to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible” (2006, p.3 in online version).

If workers in state educational services, such as schools, are also being forced to do this under the guise of the New Managerialism (as suggested by Beckman and Cooper, 2004), this tells us two important points. First, educational services appear to be falling under the law of value in this respect. Thus, they are becoming capitalised, part of capitalist production. Secondly, if this is occurring whilst the state is in control of these services then it looks as though we have a capitalist state: the state is acting as a form of capital. Under these conditions, the labour of teachers will fall under the law of value; their labour will be shaped by that law and its concrete expression in the social drive to produce ever more at minimum cost. In these conditions, notions of professionalism seem a weak defence. However, the law of value can be struggled against. As David Harvie (2006) argues, capital produces value but it also produces struggles – as groups of workers kick against the imposition of the law of value by human representatives of capital (i.e. managers).

Neoliberalism in Education

A socio-economic development allied to the New Managerialism which also impacts on teacher professionalism is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism as become a key reference point for educational researchers and theorists for understanding the drive to marketisation in educational services. David Hursh (2005), for example, has indicated how neoliberalism has infected the school systems of the United States and Great Britain (which he confuses with England) over the last twenty years or so. But neoliberalism has become the dominant focus for all social and economic policy over the last thirty years or so. As Costas Lapavitsas (2005) notes:

“The neoliberal ascendancy in economic theory and policy commenced during the second half of the 1970s. Its prevalent characteristic is the conviction that free markets provide the optimal organising mechanism for capitalist economies” (p.30).

There are three basic features of neoliberalism: it seeks to create markets and competition; it aims to nurture capital accumulation; and it attempts to break down all barriers to capital accumulation. On this last point I have summarised the relevant factors involved in Rikowski (2001, pp.11-12 – itself adapted from Ainley, 1999):

National focus of neoliberalism:

* Inflation should be controlled by interest rates, preferably by an independent central bank

* Budgets should be balanced and not used to influence demand – or at any rate not to stimulate it

* Unemployment is solely a problem of the labour market

International focus:

* Barrier to international trade and capitalist enterprise should be removed

* There should be a ‘level playing field’ for companies of any nationality within all sectors of national economies

* International trade rules are necessary to underpin ‘free’ trade, with a system for penalising ‘unfair’ trade practices.

In my booklet, The Battle in Seattle I followed the international dimension in more depth, though also relating it to the national context and New Labour’s education policies in particular. More recently, Ainley and Kaucher (2006) have done the opposite: by starting out from New Labour’s marketising initiatives they have then linked these to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Belgian education activist, teacher and writer Nico Hirtt (2004 in Hill, 2006, p.11) summarises what he calls the ‘New Economic Context (of neoliberalism) as having four principal features:

* The intensification (‘globalisation’) of economic competition

* A decrease in state financial resources for public sector provision such as school of university education

* A faster pace of change (with rapid developments in technology and in opening up new markets)

* And a ‘polarisation’ of the labour market – with less being spent on the education of the ‘masses’ in particular.

This last point can be seen in the increasing differentiation of in school workforce in England, too, as noted previously.

Neoliberalism is not just a market ideology. It is a real social process, a particular response to the capitalist crises of the 1970s. The idea of markets without commodities, without reference to products, and productive processes makes no sense: something has to be sold in markets. Thus: in the marketisation of the schools system in England we are witnessing the gradual development and extension of educational services operating within markets, but also their becoming commodities. The basic point is that neoliberalism, as I understand it, in general and when applied to the schools system in England, is about the development of capital, as well as markets: which takes us into the realm of the commodity and commodification – with value, surplus value and profit in tow. Neoliberalism nurtures the development of capital and seeks to crash down any barriers to capital accumulation. As Simon Clarke has it, in a neoliberal outlook and state policy mind-set everything is judged by its capital-inducing or capital-denying capacity or potential, and:

“The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy; it is a very real political project. Neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgment and morality of capital” (Clarke, 2005, p.58 – my emphasis).

Neoliberalism is a theory (and practice) of economy and society that is in hock to capital. It has become capital’s common-sense.

Neoliberalism undermines teacher professionalism. It places practically, morally and ideologically the development of capital and markets above that of teacher autonomy and professionalism. The restless restructurings of schools and the schools system, the changes of roles and responsibilities, the policy fever and all the rest pursued under the neoliberal banner continually disrupt, undermine and reconfigure claims to teacher professionalism, and its social substance.

Once again, teachers can struggle against the effects of neoliberalism in schools. And the recent Government focus on teacher professionalism, whilst this might carry cynicism and opportunism with it, is nevertheless a nod in the direction of teacher professionalism. The problem for the Government and the Department for Education and Skills is to frame a mode of teacher professionalism that they believe is most in tandem with neoliberalism. Of course, this will be difficult as there are many aspects of traditional teacher professionalism that conflict with neoliberalism, a point not pursued here.

Conclusion: Teacher Professionalism Caught in a Storm of Capital

Claims for teacher professionalism clatter up continually against the New Managerialism, neoliberalism and the law of value in the school system today. All this is exacerbated by New Labour’s slow drip, drip policy of the business takeover of schools, which is about developing schools as sites for value, surplus-value and eventually profit-making (see Rikowski, 2004, pp.574-575). With the business takeover of schools in particular, New Managerialism, neoliberalism and especially the law of value are strengthened.

If these processes develop further, and their intensification is dependent on the failure of workers to terminate them, then claims to teacher professionalism become increasingly hollow. Teachers will become caught in the storm of capital. Their so-called ‘autonomy’ (as if anyone could have autonomy these days) is a fiction. They will increasingly become embroiled within the workings of capital. Real education must include, therefore, an understanding of these processes in order to terminate them. Otherwise ‘teacher professionals’ will continue to live out one of the Great Illusions of the Age: that they can be and are teacher professionals. That they can actually be what they think they are. With careful reworking of the notion of professionalism in line with the demands of capital, no doubt Governments the world over would be mightily relieved if as many teachers as possible share in this illusion.

Zipping back to the original question as posed by Gray and Denley (2006) in the Introduction, it appears that teachers are being trained to deliver Government policy. However, Gray and Denley do not have much of a social analysis of the foundations of this policy in their article. In effect, by going along with Government policy, teachers, no matter how benign, noble and ‘professional’ they perceive themselves to be, are also helping to deliver neoliberalism, the diktats of the New Managerialism and the law of value to our schools. By struggling against these trends teachers can uphold their dignity, honesty and integrity against the parasitic encroachments of capital.

Which kind of teacher are you?


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© Glenn Rikowski, London, 28th October 2006
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