The Impact of Marketisation on the Educational System

The Impact of Marketisation on the Educational System, the Role of Teachers and the Effectiveness of Education

In 1981, when the neoliberal doctrine started to take hold over the economic and social life of the United Kingdom, Ronald Reagan said in his State of the Union address that, “Only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding policies […] societies remain alive, dynamic, prosperous, progressive and free. The societies that have achieved the most […] progress […] believe in the magic of the marketplace.” His words embody the essence of the neoliberal approach, which holds the promise of a dynamic, prosperous, progressive and free society for those who believe in the ability of the free-market approach to solve economic and social problems. Thirty-five years on, the question presents itself whether neoliberalism is indeed a solution to the economic and social ills. The election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 brought about a profound social restructuring, making neoliberalism a dominant force in British politics, as well as marking the beginning of the reign of market fundamentalism. The doctrine of reliance on free market mechanisms has been the dominant creed ever since, and the philosophy of the magic of the marketplace was extended to the domain of education. Therefore, a question that calls for rigorous investigation is whether the neoliberal approach has succeeded in improving the quality of education in the UK over the last three and a half decades, and how neoliberalism affected the role that teachers play in the educational process. Decades of neoliberal ascendancy have allowed for the gathering of a wealth of evidence, demonstrating the true impact of neoliberalism on education. Based on this evidence, this paper seeks to demonstrate that the neoliberal policies that led to the marketisation of the educational system had a profoundly negative influence on the quality of education in the UK while limiting the positive impact that teachers can have on the educational process and quality of education.  As a result, there is a need to abandon the neoliberal approach to counteract negative trends in educational system, guide educational policies, maintain governmental control over the educational system, and empower teachers to give pupils the best education they deserve.

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Marketisation: Implications of a Changed Educational Philosophy

An analysis of the dynamics that drive the UK educational system demonstrate that the neoliberal approach which has been used to guide and manage education has led to a marketisation of education and to subsequent negative structural changes that impair the quality of education. These negative dynamics began with the change in the basic educational philosophy and change of the concept of what education is and what it is for. Prior to the shift in educational philosophy in the 1980s, the ethical concern of education had been to minister to pupils’ individual needs and focus on their personal development by acknowledging that each of them was unique. The main function of education was to pass values and communicate knowledge. The government was there to see to it that educational institutions facilitated the knowledge transfer and passed on established values to students. The governmental involvement in education was viewed as a manifestation of paternalistic care for the nation’s children and as a contribution to promoting a stable and democratic society. In such an educational environment, local communities and parents had little influence over the educational process while teachers exercised primary control.

The major aspect of the new neoliberal philosophy and marketisation was a growing tendency to view education not as a means of knowledge and value transfer, but as one of the integral elements of the market economy. Hence, governments guided by neoliberal ideology started treating and measuring education as another component of the free market system. Ryan explains that in response to economic demands, the increase in the outsourcing of jobs overseas and the need for investments, education started to be viewed as a means of developing a highly skilled workforce and creating value in the marketplace. Subsequently, new approaches to measuring the effectiveness of education were modelled after what works in the classroom and the measurable thereof. At the same time, the validity of studies that criticised marketisation trends within education was questioned. Furthermore, semi-privatised schools (so-called academies) and free institutions were launched and given the authority to determine the curriculum, conditions, and pay. Ball asserts that the privatisation of education resulted in a widespread and large-scale involvement of the private sector in education policy through programme delivery, representation, partnerships, philanthropy, evaluation, advice, and consultation. This led to the creation of agencies privatized within the state-run educational system and state schools and the introduction of market dynamics for modelling the UK educational system. The state authorities viewed marketisation positively, as it offered to make education more efficient and raise its quality at lower costs. Notably, the focus on optimising processes by achieving greater efficiency at lower costs reflects a typical business approach to resolving market challenges. However, Ryan points out the deficiency of this concept, since it is not suitable for public education, which should seek to produce an intangible good in the form of knowledge and skills.

As marketisation and privatisation processes continued taking hold in the educational system, The Academies Act of 2010 empowered city academies to exercise greater decision-making authority on matters of curricula, teachers’ pay, and teacher recruitment. Furthermore, under this Act, schools received authorisation to expand their roles and the scope of authority to equal that exercised by academies and authorised the establishment of free schools (Adams, 2014). Higher education did not escape the effects of marketisation either. It has extended to higher education via the Education (Student Loan) Acts of 1990, 1996, and 1998, the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998, the Higher Education Act of 2004, and the Sale of Student Loans Act of 2008. Smith responds to the encroachment of marketisation into higher education by arguing that the neoliberal discourse and its focus on customer-provider relations leaves hardly any room for focusing on what universities are for. The author claims that it is unacceptable to talk about higher education only in the neoliberal context of economics and rationality, given that such discourse narrows the range of what can be thought and said. Moreover, in Smith’s) view, the language of rationality discards such functions as introducing successive generations to culture and values.

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The Neoliberal Approach and Marketisation: Arguments and Counterarguments

It would be premature to make judgements about the advantages and disadvantages of introducing neoliberal practices into education without giving serious consideration to the perceived benefits of this approach. The proponents of the neoliberal approach argue that neoliberal policies offer several important benefits to children, parents, educators, and the public. First, neoliberal education claims to be child-centred, as such giving parents greater voice in making decisions about their children’s education. For example, neoliberal policies have addressed the lack of parental choice in selecting a school for a child by allowing parents to apply to any school they want their child to attend. As a result, a competitive market was established in education, since schools started competing to attract pupils and also funding. Furthermore, schools began modifying their educational content and strategies to adjust to new demands and deliver the new standards expected by parents. However, as the following analysis demonstrates, this initiative failed to improve the quality of education.

For example, Ball and Ryan state that the marketisation of education has led to the exclusion and marginalisation of a high number of students, especially of pupils from working class and lower middle class backgrounds, as well as already marginalised families, depriving them of the education and life chances they need and deserve. Ryan also explains that marketisation has led to a further deterioration of the educational system, since fewer well-qualified educators are willing to teach at schools that get a poor evaluation. Mendoza corroborates Ryan’s point of view and argues that the plummeting quality of British education is a direct result of the privatisation of state schools. The author refers to the results of a recent education quality review conducted by the UK Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services, and Skills. This review demonstrated that a third of the assessed privately-run schools were found to perform below the required performance level (these schools failed to reach the grade of ‘good’). In comparison, only twenty-six per cent of state-run schools required improvement. Therefore, it is apparent that in the UK, the greater choice that marketisation offers has not resulted in better education. On the contrary, there are strong indications that educational standards have deteriorated since the advent of the neoliberal intrusion in education.

Another argument in favour of the neoliberal approach to education cited by its proponents is that it makes education more relevant in contemporary society by raising educational standards through the introduction of testing, and by motivating schools to improve the quality of education as they compete for pupils. The Education Reform Act of 1988 gave the government the authority to control the programme of study at schools and established a culture of standardised testing. In theory, the idea of testing appears progressive and beneficial, since it aims to evaluate pupils’ performance, inform parents and teachers about children’s productivity, and assess the achievements of schools and Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Ryan notes that the proponents of standardised testing argue that its helps to better organise the educational process, set clearer educational objectives, and close the achievement gap among students from different social backgrounds. Beyond the practical aspects of education, marketisation has also affected the values that guide it. Mulford notes that neoliberal policies led to a perceived change of ethos on the part of school administrations. According to the author, the ethos that guided school management prior to the introduction of neoliberal practices focused on public services and integrity. Meanwhile, neoliberal practices have fostered an accountability ethos, a collective approach to leadership, and the seeking of compromise via negotiations between parental groups and schools’ governing councils. Davis explains that the new testing-based accountability means that the quality of teachers can be determined by evaluating what pupils have learned from them. Davis insightfully points out, however, that instructors can be held accountable for the quality of their teaching only if the educational content is meaningful and worthwhile. In other words, when teachers are pressured by policies to focus on improving test performance, the value of learning becomes questionable. The author points out that the concentration on test productivity leaves teachers with limited choices of what to teach their pupils. Finally, Mendoza asserts that testing-oriented curricula requirements focus on retention of facts and data, not on understanding and creativity, lowering the quality of education that pupils receive. Thus, the fact that educators feel bound by tests in their teaching efforts leads to the following two conclusions. First, the teachers’ role has changed from providing creative teaching to ensuring a certain level of measurable output. Second, whereas evaluating pupils’ performance on an individual basis improves learning, tests make teaching activity less child-centred, less flexible, and less meaningful.

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Further analysis demonstrates that the drawbacks and failures of neoliberalism are not limited to a deterioration of educational standards. Another alleged benefit of neoliberalism is the promise of making education more relevant by better preparing pupils for future employment and educational opportunities. And yes, critical scholars support neither the notion that neoliberal teaching does a better job of preparing pupils for further education or employment, nor that the focus of neoliberalism is on actually improving the quality of education and expanding educational opportunities. For example, Mendoza believes that the privatisation and disintegration of traditional teaching practices have resulted in the educational system’s failure to promote social mobility, critical thinking, and aspiration in students. Furthermore, the author states that the real consequences of the neoliberal approach to education in the UK are lower student numbers, a lower percentage of enrolled adult students, and a drop in applications to higher education institutions.

A primary target of the introduction of the neoliberal discourse in education was the alleged power of educators. Considering that education came to be viewed as an integral element of the market economy, focused on producing a skilled workforce, it is reasonable to conclude that the perceived purpose of teachers’ efforts has changed drastically. In other words, instead of making pupils into knowledgeable and value-driven individuals, teachers were given the role of prepare the workforce for businesses. Smith and Ball thus reject neoliberal intrusions in higher education, since they limit the value and scope of what teachers can teach their students and displace collective professional values with commercial ones. Smith instead believes that the role of education should be to teach students that the true reality and scope of life is rich, complex, and filled with goods and values that extend far beyond narrow business interests.

Under the neoliberal model, however, teachers are placed in a position where they have to abide by prescribed curricula requirements of questionable value. Ryan claims that teachers put their careers at risk when they do not teach according to standardised testing requirements, but try to expand their teaching beyond neoliberal constraints. Ward et al. and Ball write that the neoliberal framework imposes limits on teachers in terms of educational content and claim that the hegemony of the neoliberal approach and the resulting marketisation strip a critical dialogue from the educators’ preparation in the UK. However, Ward and Connolly state that it is a matter of good sense to assume that teachers are better positioned than government officials to understand the needs of their pupils and to fulfil these particular needs through the selection of relevant and appropriate instructional content. Therefore, the increasingly prescriptive testing-oriented neoliberal curriculum limits both the relevance and value of learning, since the neoliberal approach to education, together its mandatory nature, promotes less individual freedom for teachers in adjusting their teaching to the children’s needs. Consequently, educational leaders, pressured and buffeted by neoliberal hegemony, retain hardly any voice to expose the harms of the reign of neoliberal policies in education, or to empower pupils to do the same. Hence, the transformative potential and the role of teachers are greatly limited by constraints imposed by neoliberal policies. The analysis of the literature therefore demonstrates that the neoliberal approach has failed to make education more relevant and to better prepare pupils for future educational opportunities.

Thus, the reviewed body of research suggests that neoliberalism has betrayed the expectations of those who hoped that it could improve the quality of education. Ryan argues that neoliberalism failed completely in terms of its announced goals. Gillard states that just about the only achievement that decades of neoliberal policies can boast of is an increase of capital spending in education and the dominance of multinational corporations and local elites. It seems that the limitations of the neoliberal perception does not take into account the lasting social value of education, since it is a tendency of postmodern capitalism to determine the value of things and processes in terms of money alone and present such an outlook as an ideal approach for viewing reality. Ball corroborates Fisher’s opinion, stating that neoliberalism is not a set of ideas at all; it is a merely a set of financial practices, given that it is all about profit and money.


This evaluation of the effects neoliberalism and marketisation have had on the role teachers play in the educational process and the quality of education in the UK has demonstrated that they had a profoundly negative impact, both on the role of teachers and on education quality. Research suggests that neoliberalism in the form of marketisation has failed to deliver its promise to improve education and make educational opportunities more equal and child-centred. Although parents have been given a greater choice in the selection of their children’s schools, this seemingly positive change is accompanied by deteriorating educational standards, and thus a lower quality of education, and less meaningful educational outcomes. It follows then that the implementation of neoliberal policies in education has come with a number of implications. First, the discretionary power, autonomy, transformative role, and voice of educators, and the value of what teachers teach, have been significantly limited. Second, the function of education has been reduced, from transferring knowledge and values and educating pupils to become value-driven and knowledgeable persons, to serving business interests by preparing the future workforce for the business sector. Third, an increasingly prescriptive curriculum and test-oriented education have limited the value and relevance of learning for students, making educational content less meaningful and worthwhile. Fourth, the focus of education has shifted from developing creativity, understanding, and critical thinking to the retention of data and facts. Finally, the funding of state schools has decreased. In brief, this analysis showed that neoliberalism failed to make education in the UK more dynamic, prosperous, free, and progressive and demonstrated that the power and value of the magic of the marketplace have been greatly exaggerated. As a consequence, there is a need to abandon the neoliberal approach in order to counteract these negative trends in the educational system, maintain governmental control, guide educational policies, and empower teachers to give pupils the best education they deserve, and that which the country needs. Thus, what is needed is a call to action to challenge current approaches to education, achieve a paradigm shift, and change existing policies to provide the best possible educational and life opportunities for children and youth in the UK. 

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