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Neo-Liberalism Influences on Education Policies Essay

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Updated: Jul 12th, 2021


One of the most notable aspects of the current political climate in the UK has to do with the fact that, for the duration of the last few decades, both New Labour and Conservative governments have been adhering to the neo-liberal paradigm of societal management. This resulted in creating the situation when, as of today, the neo-liberal discourse continues to exert an ever-heavier influence on the functioning of the public domain in this country. The ideology’s effects on the system of education in the UK are particularly apparent. After all, throughout the specified period, the very term “education” has effectively ceased being connotative of the notion of a social right while becoming increasingly associated with the notion of a paid service/privilege.

As Arthur (2015) aptly observed, the contemporary educational realities in Britain are characterized by the “continuation and deepening of neo-liberal (and neo-conservative) education policies based on a regime of low public expenditure and privatisation… (these policies) are essentially competitive, selective, divisive, hierarchically elitist” (p. 313). The concerning trend, however, is far from being deemed socially beneficial. It is the other way around: the very ideological premises of the neo-liberal approach to education predetermine such a state of affairs. The author will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, about what appears to be the significance of the neo-liberal conceptualization of education, in general, and the role of Ofsted inspections as yet another facilitator of the ongoing deterioration of academic standards, in particular.


Even though there is no universally accepted definition as to what neo-liberalism stands for, it will be appropriate to define this ideology as being reflective of the assumption that the greater is the role of market mechanisms in determining the systemic aspects of the society’s functioning, the better. This explains the ultimate consequence of the neo-liberal reforms’ practical implementation, “the cancellation of welfare programs and public funding for social services, and the privatization of schools, hospitals and other formerly publically run institutions” (Ludwig 2016, p. 417). This, in turn, results in widening of the gap between the rich and poor in just about every Western country where the advocates of neo-liberalism have been in charge of designing social policies for some time.

Formally speaking, neoliberalism is concerned with promoting the idea that there should be no social obstacles in the way of people trying to take full advantage of their existential potential. In this respect, the emphasis is commonly placed on the specifics of people’s ethnocultural background, as the main factor in defining their sense of self-identity and affecting the perception of the surrounding social environment, on these individuals’ part. Hence, the quasi-official status of the “celebration of diversity” policy in the West. At the same time, however, the ideology’s proponents refuse to acknowledge the existence of a link between one’s likelihood to succeed in attaining social prominence and the particulars of this person’s class affiliation. This accounts for the foremost conceptual weakness of the ideology in question.

The discursive integrity of neo-liberalism is undermined even further by the fact that despite the ideology’s commitment to advancing the “cause of freedom”, the practical implementation of neo-liberal initiatives usually results in helping the government to impose ever-stricter controls over the functioning of many public and private institutions. According to Childs and Mender (2013), the actual rationale behind such a seeming inconsistency is rather straightforward, “The freeing or creation of ‘the market’ can only be achieved through the introduction of repressive and constraining regulations that actually place severe limits on creativity and autonomy” (p. 94). The neoliberal dogma that social dynamics are merely reflective of how the “invisible hand” of the market forms the economic realities around us, cannot be regarded to represent an undisputed truth-value.

What has been said implies that there should be a strong ambivalent quality to the ideology’s socially observable extrapolations, in the sense that the formal rationale for the adoption of various neo-liberal policies does not always correlate with these policies’ de facto purpose. The validity of this statement is best illustrated, regarding the deployment of the neo-liberal approach to improving the quality of public education in the UK. The development’s initial phase dates back to the Parliamentary approval of the 1988 Education Reform Act and 2002 Education Act (aimed to create the all-national set of curriculum standards) and the 2002 establishment of the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted), with the entity’s main task being the evaluation of professional adequacy, on the practicing teachers’ part.

Even though the first of these developments contributed rather heavily towards unifying educational standards across the nation, this was achieved at the expense of lowering the quality of British education as a whole. The reason for this had to do with the essentially “pedological” nature of both Acts’ strategies for assessing one’s academic accomplishments and measuring the effectiveness of the deployed teaching strategies. Under both legislations, the academic progress of a student is the legitimate subject of different test-based evaluations that pay very little attention to the contextual aspects of the learning process in the classroom settings. Students are encouraged to prioritize providing correct answers to the questions that they are being exposed to as the main focus of their academic pursuit, without being required to expound on how these answers relate to the surrounding social reality.

This explains what is commonly regarded as the main qualitative feature of British (Western) education: the fact that the current educational paradigm prompts students to be trying to excel in the narrow field of their chosen specialization. This, however, comes at the expense of denying learners a chance to work on broadening their intellectual horizons as something that has the value of thing-in-itself and consequently preventing graduates from being able to acquire a multidimensional understanding of how the world turns around (Gorard 2009). After all, the neo-liberal paradigm in education deems the possession of such an understating, on graduates’ part, to be quite irrelevant. All that matters, in this regard, is that a graduate can derive pleasure from consuming products and services (neo-liberalism idealizes consumerism) continually and possesses the limited number of professional skills that he or she can trade in exchange for being provided with a monthly salary by the employer. If the person’s professional skills become outdated or simply fall out of demand, he or she will be required to enroll in a vocational school/college and acquire some new “trade” that happened to be in high demand (Zepke 2015).

Such a scenario correlates well with the neo-liberal outlook on education as a paid service, rather than a socially constructed pathway towards achieving self-actualization. There are, however, several reasons to doubt the validity of how the promoters of the neo-liberal agenda conceptualize education. The most evident of them is that their conceptualization implies that there is no need for the government to be trying to increase the accessibility/affordability of education. Instead, it should focus on improving the actual techniques used for measuring the rate of one’s academic progress and the quality of the learning process. Hence, the earlier mentioned specifics of how neoliberalism affects the pedagogic discourse in this country: while praising “educational freedom”, it legitimizes the imposition of ever-stricter governmental controls over the system of education in the UK. As Childs and Mender (2013) noted, “We can see teacher education policy situated within two key themes of diversification and freedom, a neoliberal perspective, alongside more neoconservative ones like tightening accountability (p. 106). Also, it calls for the educational disfranchisement of the socially underprivileged groups of students, especially those who come from low-income families.

This simply cannot be otherwise: the implementation of the neoliberal reforms in education through the last few decades resulted in legitimizing the idea that one’s affiliation with a particular social class does not have any effect on the person’s likelihood to succeed in academia, “(Neo-liberalism) de-legitimises social class as a relevant category for thinking and talking about educational attainment” (Lefstein 2013, p. 648). In its turn, this implies that the lower academic attainment of the representatives of ethnic minorities is not resulting from the fact that many of these people happened to be impoverished, but from the specifics of the concerned individuals’ “brain wiring”. Therefore, the neo-liberal policymakers’ commitment to promoting “diversity” serves merely a rhetorical purpose, “The ‘equal opportunities’ discourse that appears to be sympathetic to disadvantaged groups actually serves as a cover for low expectations” (Hill 2011, p. 139). However, once it is assumed that teachers are quite incapable of helping ethnically diverse underachievers to improve their scores, there can be very little rationale in evaluating the professional performance of the former in the first place.

Nothing illustrates the full soundness of this suggestion better than the earlier mentioned adoption of the Ofsted framework for inspecting schools and assessing the effectiveness of how teachers go about addressing their professional responsibilities in the field. The actual justification for the adoption of this framework in 2002 had to do with its designers’ belief that this will establish the objective preconditions for educational standards in England and Wales to be improving continually. According to Mboyo (2017), “The (Ofsted) inspecting team form their judgment based on pupils’ achievement, quality of teaching, behavior… In doing so, it seeks to be an instrument for accountability and improvement” (p. 269). As the practice indicates, however, this did not prove to be the case. Quite to the contrary, there is a good reason to believe that Ofsted inspections contribute towards making it much harder for both teachers and students to work on achieving their objectives.

For as long as teachers are concerned, being required to undergo Ofsted evaluations causes them to experience much stress continually (Penninckx & Vanhoof, 2015). After all, Ofsted inspectors have the power to put an end to the professional career of just about any teacher, “A failing grade of ‘special measures’ in an OFSTED inspection can result in dismissal of senior management and even school closure” (Lefstein 2013, p. 644). This, however, is only a part of the problem. The main issue with Ofsted inspections, as a neo-liberal initiative, is that the concerned practice fails at observing the principle of reproducibility. One of the reasons for this is that the Ofsted assessment framework, concerned with collecting and quantifying the observational data of relevance, ignores the phenomenological/contextual aspects of the learning process. For example, the framework’s designers underestimated the effect of irrational emotions on what Ofsted inspectors perceive to be the indications of high-quality performance, on the assessed teacher’s part. This, of course, could not result in anything else but in undermining the objective value of Ofsted assessments on account of being strongly speculative.

Ofsted inspections also fall short of the task of serving as a reliable instrument for predicting how the would-be applied adjustment to a particular educational policy will affect this policy’s long-term outcomes. The reason for this is that the statistical data, regarding Ofsted inspections, suggests the absence of any cause-effect link between the teacher’s ability to score high while evaluated by Ofsted inspectors, and his or her factual worth as an effective educator, capable of providing students with the discursively appropriate incentives to remain committed to studying.

In light of the above-stated, one will likely wonder about what is factual (and not merely formal) purpose of Ofsted inspections? In this regard, Lefstein (2013) provides a perfectly workable explanation, “As symbolic politics, (Ofsted) inspection is a potent, inquisitorial drama that serves to impress upon the general public that failure is not tolerated, that government is working vigorously to eradicate poor teaching” (p. 655). enough, the primary function of Ofsted inspections is to legitimize the adoption of the “low expectation” approach to teaching minority students: something that in its turn is expected to increase the “cost-effectiveness” of operating school and colleges. In the long term, this is supposed to serve the purpose of encouraging citizens to assume that one’s chances to attain good education are predetermined by just about anything, but the particulars of this individual’s class status. Ultimately, this will contribute towards helping the few rich and powerful to justify their hegemonic control over the society: the would-be development that correlates well with the neoliberal ideology’s commitment towards justifying social/educational inequality as a “natural state of affairs”. The policy’s more pragmatic purpose is empowering even further the governmental bureaucracy, in charge of designing educational policies in the UK.


Because of what was said earlier, concerning the influence of neoliberalism on the recently adopted educational policies in the UK, it will be appropriate to conclude this paper by confirming their unmistakably political essence. Given the fact that the promoters of neo-liberalism in education claim to be driven by purely apolitical considerations, this raises much concern about the overall credibility of these people’s educational agenda. In the author’s opinion, the discursive significance of educational neo-liberalism in Britain is best assessed from the neo-Marxist perspective, in conjunction with what accounts for the recent discoveries in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. This, however, would be an entirely separate subject matter to address. The provided conclusion appears to resonate well with the paper’s initial thesis.


Arthur, J 2015, ‘Extremism and neo-liberal education policy: a contextual critique of the Trojan horse affair in Birmingham schools’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 63, no. 3, pp. 311-328.

Childs, A & Mender, I 2013, ‘Teacher education in the 21st century England: a case study in neoliberal public policy/La formación del profesorado del siglo XXI en Inglaterra: un estudio de caso desde la política neoliberal’, Revista Española de Educación Comparada, vol. 4, no. 22, pp. 93-116.

Gorard, S 2009, ‘What are academies the answer to?’, Journal of Education Policy, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 101-113.

Hill, D 2011, ‘State theory and the neo-liberal reconstruction of schooling and teacher education: a structuralist neo-marxist critique of postmodernist, quasi-postmodernist, and culturalist neo-marxist theory’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 135-155.

Lefstein, A 2013, ‘The regulation of teaching as symbolic politics: rituals of order, blame and redemption’, Discourse (Abingdon), vol. 34, no. 5, pp. 643-659.

Ludwig, G 2016, ‘Desiring neoliberalism’, Sexuality Research & Social Policy, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 417-427.

Mboyo, J 2017, ‘The place of emotions while inspecting schools: reflections of two Ofsted inspectors’, School Leadership & Management, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 267-287.

Penninckx, M & Vanhoof, J 2015, ‘Insights gained by schools and emotional consequences of school inspections: a review of evidence’, School Leadership & Management, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 477.

Zepke, N 2015, ‘What future for student engagement in neo-liberal times?’, Higher Education, vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 693-704.

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