Flow of Ideas

Education Repetition: Brown Follows Blair’s Neoliberal Education Reform Agenda

Glenn Rikowski, London, 8th June 2007


In a recent article (Rikowski, 2007b), I argued that Gordon Brown (Prime Minister non-elect) would respond positively to the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) yearnings for a more marketised, competitive education system with a greater role for the private sector. Furthermore, I have also argued (in Rikowski, 2007a) that:

“I can see no evidence that [Gordon] Brown will draw a line in the sand regarding intensifying commodification, marketisation and competition in the delivery of schools services. He will be a friend to those companies who want to run schools for profit, I am sure” (p.3).

An article in yesterday’s Financial Times by Nicholas Timmins (2007) supports this perspective on where Gordon Brown will stand vis-à-vis schools policy in England. After much misplaced speculation in the press, it appears that Gordon Brown will step into Tony’ Blair’s neoliberal policy shoes for education with few qualms. This is likely to disappoint the Conservatives on the one hand (who had hoped that Brown would take on an Old Labour attitude to schools and other public services), and the trade unions (on the other) who were wishfully thinking in myopic delusion that Brown would curtail or at least substantially slow down Blair’s neoliberal project in the public services.

Widening the Neoliberal Road to Capital’s Classrooms

Gordon Brown seems determined to widen neoliberal roads to the doors of schools and classrooms in England. Timmins notes that:

“Gordon Brown has delivered his clearest endorsement yet of the Blairite agenda of choice, competition and the use of the private sector to improve public services.”

However, Brown is desperately attempting to keep his commitment on this as secretive as possible. Apparently, it was in a ‘private letter to the CBI employers’ group that Brown says:

“… a reform agenda of “choice, the use of competition and greater contestability” must be driven forward. It must be “supported by a diversity of supply – with business and third-sector organisations delivering high-quality public services” (Timmins, 2007).

With the stress on ‘third-sector’ operators, Brown is flagging up that he concurs with the Conservatives on a greater role for charities and foundations and not-for-profit social enterprises in delivering public services, as well as more scope for private operators. Thus, there is nothing in essence to chose between the Conservative policy, Blair’s visions and Brown intentions for public service delivery. Timmins notes that in March 2007, Blair launched a six-month policy review outlining his visions for public service ‘reform’ and that Brown’s CBI letter backs up Blair’s wishes and desires in this field. However, Timmins also noted that some of the caveats in the March review, which would have provided restraining factors on competitive modernisation of public services, have not been included in the Brown letter. These were that public services would be opened to competition “where appropriate” and that there would “always be some limits to market provision”. Now, it seems, schools and other public services will be subjected to the full force of marketisation, competition and capitalisation – with the soft underbelly of charities and social enterprises providing a cosy counter-point to the depredations of capital.

Hearts and Minds

Brown’s letter also stresses that front line staffs need to be engaged with the new reforms. Thus, for schools, teachers must be convinced that the new competitive modernisation and the greater insertion of capital and its desires and interests into the school system is a good thing. No doubt schemes regarding pay and promotion, aimed at convincing school heads, deputy heads and senior teachers that an intensification of capitalisation and retro Dickensianisation (the reversion to a significant role for charities) is necessary for schools, will be crafted by civil servants in the Department for Education and Skills.

Furthermore, Brown seeks to bring innovation and local autonomy to the public service scene, for:

“… continued modernisation “will require working with professionals and front line staff to bring about new and innovative policy development including choice, the use of competition and greater contestability, and backed by greater user engagement and local accountability” (Timmins, 2007).

But these will be a volatile brew in the context of schools. How greater user engagement will be brought about will be interesting to see. The CBI has mooted plans for user involvement that include ‘consumer boards’ and other form of ‘user group involvement’ (CBI, 2007, p.35). But who might be the ‘consumers’ of schools’ educational services? Parents obviously, but it could be argued that pupils themselves consume educational services and employers do (as they buy and utilise labour power developed by education and training). It is clear that trade unions and local authority representatives would not be welcome: they would represent ‘producer interests’, though under the CBI plans local authorities would not be delivering schools educational services but would only commission them (CBI, 2007).

Conclusion: The Forces of Conservatism Unleashed in Schools

In line with the analysis given in Rikowski (2007b) there appears to be an emerging consensus – a new consensus, perhaps – which is shared by the CBI, New Labour (both Blairites and Brownites) and the Conservative Party. However, it is the CBI that is calling the shots, with the two major parties vying with each other regarding who is most ‘business friendly’ in general and promotes business interests in the schools system in particular. This new consensus is based on local authorities commissioning but not running schools. It is also based on there being greater involvement of the private sector and charities in the running of schools, with the emergence of not-for-profit social enterprises also having an impact (see CBI, 2007) – and a residual and declining role for local authorities. The Academy Programme will be expanded. Accountability will shift to various ‘user groups’ that go beyond current parent teachers associations (PTAs). The role for governing bodies in this is unclear, though trade unions are out of the picture and the role of local political representatives will be marginalised to that of commissioning, monitoring and providing information to consumers (CBI, 2007).

Despite all of the managerial guff about ‘innovation’ and staff involvement, this new consensus for schools is driven by the forces of conservatism: the capitalisation of schools, which will provide a landscape for the rule of profit and money, and throwbacks to the nineteenth century in the shape of various forms of philanthropy, charity and religious control. The new consensus for schools will constitute a form of retromodernism (see Rikowski, 2006); under the cover of ‘modernisation’, older and more basic forms of capitalist social life will be imposed on schools.


CBI (2007) The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, A submission by the Confederation of British Industry, May, London: CBI.

Rikowski, G. (2006) Editorial: Education for Social Change, Information for Social Change, Issue No.23 (summer): http://libr.org/isc/issues/ISC23/A2%20Editorial.pdf

Rikowski, G. (2007a) Academy Chains: Building on the Neoliberal Education Policy of Tony Blair, London, 3rd June, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Academy%20Chains

Rikowski, G. (2007b) The Confederation of British Industry and the Business Takeover of Schools, a paper produced for The Flow of Ideas, 3rd June, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20CBI%20and%20the%20Business%20Takeover%20of%20Schools

Timmins, N. (2007) Blair’s reforms win Brown’s backing, Financial Times, 7th June, p.2, online at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/cbe92842-1493-11dc-88cb-000b5df10621.html

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