Sanctified or Vilified – Teachers in a Neo-Liberal Age

Cards for Democracy
Published on
March 10, 2017
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Sanctified or Vilified – Teachers in a Neo-Liberal Age

Richard John Harris

Learn to Change is a community of teachers and educators, whose goal is to promote a just, inclusive and democratic society. It is designed to empower teachers and learners. This is crucial as teachers, as a community of professionals, have been both cited as crucial to the success of any educational system but at the same time criticised, and occasionally vilified, for the failings of current educational standards. Understanding the context in which this has been allowed to happen is critical if, as a community, we are to respond appropriately and defend our position.

One element of this context is the issue of globalisation. There is a clear sense that the world is increasingly interconnected, and what happens in one region often has implications for other places in the world. But in terms of education this manifests itself in the form of a comparison of education systems globally, most famously captured in the PISA results. These results have led to increased scrutiny of education systems and extensive ‘policy borrowing’ as governments try to learn from supposedly higher performing systems and attempt to adopt and implement ideas in a quest to ‘raise’ standards. Another element of the context is the notion of a knowledge economy; in the modern era knowledge is seen as the new capital and is regarded as ‘a codifiable commodity, which is produced, measured, marketed, sold and distributed in the market place’ (Winter, 2012), and existing ‘school knowledge’ is seen as outdated and irrelevant. And the other element in this context is the use of neo-liberal policies to drive change. In this paradigm, the state is reluctant to interfere at a local level in what happens, instead it uses a series of ‘arms-length’ means of governance to shape the direction and outcomes of policy, but under the guise of allowing market forces to determine how institutions and individuals implement change. Education is therefore governed by ‘numbers’, where success is quantified, classified and measured. The problem here is that what is measurable (e.g. examination results) becomes valued; yet certain things are easier to measure than others so we end up in a situation where we value what we assess but do not always assess what we value.

The consequences of this situation for education are profound. Governments want to see improved standards and so introduce policies; yet polices are introduced to solve  issues, but who actually determines what are the problems that need resolving, who decides what standards are acceptable and what those standards should include?

 The danger is that by focusing on easily measurable outcomes, governments look for simple solutions to apparently simple problems.

At the heart of this thinking is the need to identify the source of the problem(s). In this regard schools, the curriculum and teachers are seen to be at fault; schools are too bureaucratic, the curriculum is too old-fashioned and teachers are seen as lacking the ‘skills’ needed to meet modern needs. To resolve these problems education systems simply need to find out ‘what works’ and just implement these ideas across the entire education system. The result is a series of reforms to modify curricula and to ‘train’ teachers to use the ‘best’ methods to teach young people. However many policies are ill-informed about the debates around knowledge (what it is, what is valuable, how is knowledge formed and used). Reforms to teacher training (not education!) increasingly frame teachers as being deficient in particular skills, and so reforms, such as the introduction of various ‘teacher standards’, position teachers as technicians, who simply need to know and be able to implement particular forms of pedagogy.

As Bates (2013, 51-52) argues:

The price of the relentless focus on standards is an impoverished educational landscape, in which we lose sight of the whole child and have little time to connect to pedagogically important questions about the meaning of teaching and the significance of children in our lives.

My view is that as teachers we need to assert our professional identity and be robust in defending what we do and how we do things. That does mean individual teachers have to have a well-rounded, defensible view of education. At the heart of this, I would argue, is an understanding of humanity and how people work, collaborate and interact in social groups – this is not easily measured nor easily taught, but is central to any form of strong democratic education.

Many governments place huge emphasis on the STEM subjects, as these are deemed to be the driving force of future economic growth, but there needs to be balance, for as the educational philosopher, Pring (1999, 74) states ‘liberal education, which is manifested in the teaching of the humanities at its best, is at the heart of a genuinely political education.’ Teachers of all ages and subjects should have the intellectual confidence to articulate their vision of education, centred on the development of key democratic dispositions. And this comes through appropriate teacher education, giving teachers opportunities to engage in valuable discourse and reflection, and providing teachers with the confidence and competences to promote democratic values.

This is what makes the existence of organisations such as Learn to Change so important, to act as an alternative voice in the face of a frenzy of educational reforms, many of which are well intended but misguided, contrary and counter-productive.

By becoming a member you will benefit in many ways:

  • You join a group and become more powerful.
  • You support our common goals and empower yourself to change.
  • You join a community of committed people who want to change education and the way we learn.
  • You get regular resources for lessons, training and advocacy.


Bates, A. (2013) Transcending systems thinking in education reform: implications for policy-makers and school leaders. Journal of Education Policy, 28 (1), 38-54.

Pring, R. (1999) Political education: relevance of the humanities. Oxford Review of Education, 25 (1&2), 71–87.

Winter, C. (2012) School curriculum, globalisation and the constitution of policy problems and solutions. Journal of Education Policy, 27 (3), 295-314.


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