Flow of Ideas
Post-Fordism and Schools in England

Glenn Rikowski, London, 26th April 2008


Post-Fordism was a concept that was very fashionable in the social sciences in the 1980s. It reached a high point of intellectual influence in the mid-1990s, thereafter suffering a decline. Like most intellectual movements, Post-Fordism reached education theory and research late. But by the early 1990s writers were attempting to apply the concept to education.


To understand what “Post-Fordism” we need to examine “Fordism”. Fielding notes that: “Fordism has been viewed as a set of industrial and social practices associated with Henry Ford” (und, p.1) and his automotive factory at Highland Park in Detroit during 1909–1919. Highland Park exhibited the archetypal Fordist mode of production: dedicated equipment; semi-skilled workers (under a management regime based on Taylorist principles); a standardised product; and a move from craft to mass production (the assembly line). Thompson (und.) notes that Ford also brought in some technical innovations: process engineering and standardisation (inter-changeability of parts); and that he exploited advances in machine tools and gauging systems to attain inter-changeability. With these changes the assembly line was possible for car production. Assemblers performed a simple task repetitively. Ford also used the electric motor to reconfigure production; they were placed on the assembly line. The moving assembly line was introduced at Highland Park in 1914. He also brought in a number of administrative and social control systems based on the Prussian bureaucratic model of the late-19th century: centralised materials requirements and logistical planning; control by rules; standard operating procedures; and the decomposition of tasks to their simplest.

Yet Ford faced huge problems of labour unrest, absenteeism and labour turnover in the early years of Highland Park (Clarke, 1990). Work there was dehumanising. In desperation Ford brought in: a new ‘skill wages’ ladder in 1913; and a Savings and Loans scheme (for security). These had little impact, so he brought in the ‘Five Dollar Day’ in 1914: higher wages, less hours and ‘pervasive social engineering’ through his notorious Sociological Department, notes Clarke (1990). These measures had a big impact on production. The Sociological Department attempted to regulate workers’ lives through promoting Puritan attitudes and hard work. This included snooping on workers’ habits after work as well as during work-time. Those deemed to have sound personal, moral and social habits were put on the ‘Five Dollar Day’. Trade unions were outlawed.

Clarke (1992) argues that the term ‘Fordism’ was widely used in the 1930s and 1940s, but fell out of favour in the 1950s and 1960s as greater state involvement in the economy and society along Keynesian lines was pursued by governments. Fordism also became an idea that attempted to encapsulate the nature of whole of Western societies from the late 1970s.

The Education Reform Act (1988) and Fordism

The Education Reform Act brought in by the Conservatives in 1988 appeared to have a number of ‘Fordist’ elements. The most prominent was the National Curriculum. Pupils in state schools were subjected to a standard learning package that was monitored on the basis of levels of learning, targets, standard content and stipulations regarding how learning was to be ‘delivered’. On top of this was a massive monitoring regime, involving SATs testing and tough inspections carried out by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Finally, results were published in league tables, and this gave a marketising twist to a generally standardised project as individual kids, their teachers and schools could be judged by ‘public opinion’.

Indeed, the way in which schools (their pupils, teachers and outputs) featured in the media (especially local newspapers) functioned in similar ways to Ford’s Sociological Department. Bad schools were subject to censure and ultimately declining admissions, whilst those with good results and perceived sound reputations were rewarded with parents attempting to get their kids into them; the functional equivalent of Ford’s ‘Five Dollar Day’.

However, the ‘one size fits all’ National Curriculum and the (bog) standard features of state comprehensive schools (notwithstanding 164 grammar schools and thousands of private schools) could be viewed as an ‘industrial relic’: factory schooling for the masses that was inappropriate for the New Times of Post-Fordism. This paralleled arguments about rigid Keynesian economics failing to stimulate economic growth whilst letting in both inflation and unemployment in the late-1970s and early 1980s. Enter de-regulation of various kinds: monetarism and the end of exchange controls; neoliberalism; privatisation of public utilities; and, it seems, Post-Fordism.

Post-Fordism and Schools in England

Post-Fordism was apparently first ‘discovered’ in northern Italy: in Emilia-Romagna (clothing industry) by two industrial sociologists: Piore and Sabel. It was based on the notion of flexible specialisation. It includes the following aspects (from Hirst, 1989; Clarke, 1990): core/periphery workforces, full-time permanent core, part-time and insecure peripheral workers; specialised goods; particular and changing markets; flexible general purpose machines; predominantly skilled labour; industrial districts (e.g. Emilia-Romagna); institutions which link firms into networks; close relations with sub-contractors (outsourcing and sub-contracting); the dissolution of labour security (uncertainty, loss of control for workers); niche markets; fluidity, and more individualism, concerned with style; multi-skilling and tendencies for upskilling and higher job satisfaction (Tomany, 1990); and TQM, JIT (Just-in-Time) etc. aspects of the Japanisation of production.

I cannot review the nature of schools in England today in terms of all the elements of Post-Fordism here. For example, Fielding and Rikowski (1996) have argued that the core aspect of Post-Fordism, flexible specialisation, does have some credence in relation to teachers’ work in primary schools in England. Here, I shall focus on just one issue: niche marketing in England’s schools as an indicator of Post-Fordism. On this count, the concept of Post-Fordism seems to have relevance for schools in contemporary England. First, there are many types of schools, most of them introduced by the New Labour since 1997: Community Schools (existing comprehensives); Specialist Schools (with increasing specialisms since 2000); Foundation Schools (with some curricular freedoms); Trust Schools; Academies; Beacon Schools (spreading good practice); Leading Edge Schools (fostering innovation); Faith Schools; Grammar Schools; Federated Schools; Schools in Education Action Zones; State Boarding Schools (mainly but not exclusively for the armed forces); and Private or Independent Schools, fee paying schools, ranging from the great ‘Public’ Schools (e.g. Eton, Roedean etc.) to those in cut-price chains, such as Cognita.

Overlaid on these school types is differentiation by age phase, e.g. whether there is a 3-school set up, including middle schools, in a local education authority (LEA). There is also a divide between “selecting” schools (grammar schools, and Academies and specialist schools selecting 10% on ‘aptitude’) and “non-selecting” schools. Finally, ‘ownership’ provides further diversity between: churches for faith schools, Academy sponsors (of various types), foundation status, Trusts, LEAs, and business operators (outsourcing and educational management organisations).

When such diversity and differentiation of school types is considered, then Post-Fordist niche marketing has some resonance. Schools are aimed at particular pupil/parent constituencies. This is most obvious with the specialist schools programme, where pupil ‘aptitude’ for, e.g. modern languages or business studies, can be addressed. Such choices are more available in urban areas, with many schools within reasonable travelling distance. Overall, the developing schools system in England incorporates an increasingly diversified product offer.

Whether schools in England will continue to develop along Post-Fordist lines will depend on whether the National Curriculum is maintained. Only its abolition would signify that Post-Fordism has attained a substantial hold over our schools.


Clarke, S. (1990) New Utopias for Old: Fordist Dreams and Post-Fordist Fantasies, Capital & Class, winter, no.42, pp.131-155.

Clarke, S. (1992) What in F---‘s Name is Fordism? In: N. Gilbert, R. Burrows & A. Pollert (Eds.) Fordism and Flexibility, London: Macmillan Press.

Fielding, S. (und.) Post-Fordism and Primary Schools, School of Education, University of Birmingham, unpublished manuscript.

Fielding, S. & Rikowski, G. (1996) Resistance to Restructuring? Post-Fordism in British Primary Schools, School of Education, University of Birmingham, June: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Post-Fordism%20in%20Primary%20Schools

Hirst, P. (1989) After Henry, New Statesman & Society, 21st July, pp.18-19.

Thompson, F. (und.) Fordism, Post-Fordism and the Flexible System of Production, Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, at: http://www.willamette.edu/~fthompson/MgmtCon/Fordism_&_Postfordism.html

Tomaney, J. (1990) The Reality of Workplace Flexibility, Capital & Class, spring, no.40, pp.29-60.

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