What does neoliberalism look like in education? ‘Factories for Learning’ by Christy Kulz (2017)

Christy Kulz’s Factories for Learning (2017, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 208pp., ISBN: 978–1–5261–1619–2) is an ethnographic study of a class, race, and social mobility in a London academy. It offers a critical analysis of the ‘mobility mythology’ that drives that academy’s success and that is often offered as the ideological justification for the academy project. Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977) is an obvious point of reference. Willis investigates a specific group of ‘lads’ who form the school’s counterculture, and how they respond to the efforts of their teachers to impose discipline and impart knowledge. His main interest is, in the book’s subtitle, ‘how working class kids get working class jobs’. Learning to Labour is a classic of educational sociology, showing how the lads see an irreconcilable contradiction between the demands of the manual labour jobs they will soon take and the rules of the school they will soon leave.

Factories for Learning is a study of a very different education system. The last thirty years of education policy — as outlined in Stephen J. Ball’s detailed, if slightly dry, The Education Debate (2017) — have seen a range of interventions designed to inject choice into the education system. Many of these policies have been partly justified as a way to ‘correct’ a model that has consistently failed to enact social mobility. As Ken Jones’ short paper ‘The Autonomous School, the Strong State, the Problems of Education’ (2015) argues, academisation develops schools as increasingly autonomous commissioning and management environments while it places more control and oversight in central government. Perhaps the key consequence, though, is the creation of a series of interlocking systems that are all aimed at managing teachers. They are ‘managed towards outcomes’, which means that they face working days structured around the dictates of data and focused on pupil outcomes. Any complaint is tantamount to an assertion that they do not care about their pupils. Through these management mechanisms, pupil outcomes are supposedly maximized, and social mobility is brought about as poorer students obtain better grades and consequently a better labour market position.

Kulz takes aim at the ambition culture in Dreamfields Academy (or Mossbourne Academy in Hackney) that gives pupils ‘no excuses’ for not succeeding and sees school as a site to break away from “urban” cultures that may hold students back. Of course, hard work and obedience to school rules — so teachers can teach and learners can learn — are key parts of the school culture. This ethos also applies to staff; Kulz quotes the Principal of Dreamfields as saying: ‘[W]e want staff who commit themselves to [our] ethos. It’s not a nine-to-five ethos; it’s an ethos which says the only way that these children will achieve is if we go the extra mile for them.’ Kulz sees this culture as producing students who are docile robots, while teachers (who do not have a staff room) are quickly burnt out by injunctions to go the extra mile. Kulz also questions the ‘post-racial’ atmosphere of the school, suggesting instead that race is an issue, but no-one talks about it. While there is formal equality, the ideal of the good student (who in turn has more room to negotiate around school rules) is still one of specific, and predictable, class and race.

Factories for Learning, then, acts in part as a study in the formation of neoliberal subjects. Dreamfields students get better grades than students at similar schools; Dreamfields’ ‘structure liberates’ ethos works for some, but not for others. Social theorist Mark Fisher, when describing the effects of neoliberal capitalism on individuals’ self-understanding, talks about ‘responsibilisation’. This is the name for one of the most familiar processes of a competitive, unequal society, namely that by which an individual comes to see themselves as responsible for their successes or failures, even while sometimes being aware of the weight of sociological evidence to the contrary.

In examining some of the contours of Dreamfields’ school culture Kulz’s argument is that in the academy project the idea of social mobility fails on its own terms. Seeing education instrumentally as a route to achieving social mobility has been at the core of the Left’s inability to articulate a compelling educational vision in the past thirty years to counter marketization. The truly damning lesson of Factories for Learning is that the Left does not currently have a developed alternative of what education could look like that is truly comprehensive and popular.

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