Flow of Ideas
My Tony Blair, and His Neoliberal Education Policies

Glenn Rikowski, London, 12th May 2007

My Tony Blair

For the last couple of days I’ve been reading the press coverage of ‘The Blair Years’, or ‘The Blair Legacy’, or whatever. However, all this journalistic outpouring misses the point, for me, personally. My Tony Blair was the guy who ended the Conservative administration that began in 1979 and ended in 1997: and that’s about it regarding anything positive! As I have written before (Rikowski, 2007a), the Thatcher era, the 1980s, had a particular cutting edge for me. I saw Mrs Thatcher (personally) and her government (collectively) as hell bent on ruining my life, the lives of people like me and also the livelihoods and well-being of many workers throughout the land. John Major’s government did not alter things much, and his ‘back to basics’ campaign was exceedingly irritating and reactionary. He walked in Thatcher’s shadow. Her spirit permeated throughout the doings of the Major government. Thus, whilst I had few illusions in Tony Blair and New Labour when they came to power, I was hugely pleased when the Tories got such a hammering on 2nd May 1997 (which was also my birthday). Yet whilst many on the Left in general, and the educational Left in particular, were heartened by Blair’s revelation that his main priority in government was ‘Education, Education, Education’, I was very apprehensive about this.

His Neoliberal Education Policies

The outcome was depressing in the extreme. The New Labour government’s education policies were basically neoliberal in nature: attempting to break down barriers to capital accumulation in the emerging ‘education markets’ in England. Of course, the actual pace of change has been quite slow, and in many of the press analyses of ‘The Blair Years’ I have read in the last few days Tony Blair has kicked himself for not moving faster and further ahead with ‘public service reform’ (i.e. the capitalisation of public services; transforming then into sites of commodification, value production and profit-making).

Yet where Blair was headed with his education policies was pretty obvious right from the off. As soon as he came to power he set about deepening the higher education market and transferring the costs of labour-power production away from the State and onto students through the institution of student fees, the abolition of student grants and the consolidation of the loans system. Education Action Zones (EAZs) were also speedily put into action, with the hope of attracting corporate capital through the school gate. However, the failure of this latter strategy was most instructive for New Labour: if companies, philanthropists and entrepreneurs were to throw their own money into schools then they needed something in return. The massive and rapid expansion of the Specialist Schools Programme after 2000 and the Academies Programme gave the wolves of capital what they wanted: more control over the curriculum and school ethos. In the case of Academies, it also gave some sponsors (who put in anything up to £2million) various honours (knighthoods, Lordships and so on) – and the ‘cash-for-honours’ scandal is ongoing.

In addition, New Labour went further than the Tories in letting companies run schools for profit. This was allowed in nine local education authorities (now known as merely local authorities), who functioned as educational management organisations (EMOs), and in a few individual schools. In addition, many education services ranging from school improvement to equal opportunities were run on a contract by a range of companies. Finally, and only a few weeks ago, New Labour let in a company to turn around a ‘failing’ school (though technically it was not ‘failing’): Edison Schools, from the USA (see Rikowski, 2007b). All of these developments were about running schools or various education services on a contract, and turning state revenue into private profit in the process.

There has also been the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which has been New Labour’s preferred mechanism for building schools and estate management. The PFI was originally a dud Conservative initiative, but was regenerated and expanded massively by Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and leading candidate to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The basics of the PFI are that for school building and refurbishment programmes companies raise money on the capital markets and then build new school or upgrade existing ones. They then pay back over 25-30 years the capital sum plus interest to the financiers, whilst taking money from the local authority – both for providing the building work and in the case of new schools for providing cleaning and estate management services. In practice it is much more complicated that this. First, the company raising the cash might not be the same as the company that builds, extends or refurbishes the school. The maintenance, cleaning etc. may well be subcontracted out to a range of companies. Finally, a number of secondary markets have arisen where various elements of the process have been sold on to other companies. The key point is that a PFI proposal has to stake out a claim to be more cost-effective than conventional procurement for capital programmes in a competitive tendering process, and as Dexter Whitfield (2006) has noted, the game is rigged in favour of PFI bids. New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future Programme and its Academies Programme gave significant boosts to the PFI regarding schools.

We Were Warned!

There are many other ways in which New Labour has opened the door to capital in the education system, and I have been researching and writing on this issue over the whole period of Blair’s New Labour regime. New Labour has attempted to provide a legislative framework for the business takeover over of schools, which started with the Standards and Framework Act (1998) through to the Education and Inspections Act of 2006. But obviously I cannot examine all the developments regarding the business takeover of schools here. Those listed above are just some of the main ones.

However, others warned us of what was happening some time ago. In 1999, Dave Hill published a pamphlet where he examined early New Labour education policies, and concluded that, on the whole, they were moving in a neoliberal direction. In the same year, Martin Allen and others produced another pamphlet which uncovered how New Labour education policy was tied to business interests. Thus, New Labour was more concerned with ‘Business, Business, Business’ than ‘Education, Education, Education’! The latter was subsumed under the former. My booklet, The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education (2001) added to this literature in showing the connections between the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), New Labour’s education policies and the capitalisation of schools. The following year David Osler (2002) produced a compelling analysis of New Labour policies, indicating how they and the party that spawned them were founded on forging ever closer ties with and dependence on business interests. Thus, it is quite amusing when the penny drops for journalists years later! For example, Simon Jenkins (2007) concluded recently that:

“Blair and Brown became Thatcherites by conviction in the early 1990s and have never deserted the faith.”

Jenkins provides some sound arguments and evidence supporting his analysis – but it has arrived a tad late!

Given Gordon Brown’s commitments to PFI, and his recent statements on Academies, it is expected that as Prime Minister he will continue Blair’s, Major’s and Thatcher’s neoliberalism in general and neoliberal education policies in particular: i.e. Thatchamajorblairism. However, the opposition to these is beginning to build, and struggles over the limits to the capitalisation of schools are at an early stage, as is the process itself.


Allen, M., Benn, C., Chitty, C., Cole, M., Hatcher, R., Hirtt, N. & Rikowski, G. (1999) Business, Business, Business: New Labour’s Education Policy, a Hillcole Pamphlet, London: Tufnell Press.

Hill, D, (1999) New Labour and Education: Policy, Ideology and the Third Way, a Hillcole Pamphlet, London: Tufnell Press.

Jenkins, S. (2007) There is no Blairism. An ‘ism’ needs a coherent set of ideas, The Guardian, 25th April, p.27.

Osler, D. (2002) Labour Party plc: New Labour as a Party of Business, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.

Rikowski, G. (2001) The Battle in Seattle: Its Significance for Education, London: Tufnell Press.

Rikowski, G. (2007a) Mrs Thatcher and Holes in the Kitchen Floor, 22nd February, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Mrs%20Thatcher%20and%20Holes%20in%20the%20Kitchen%20Floor

Rikowski, G. (2007b) Edison Schools in the UK, 23rd April, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Edison%20Schools%20in%20the%20UK

Whitfield, D. (2006) New Labour’s Attack on Public Services, Nottingham: Spokesman.

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