Alienation in a neo-liberal world: radical overhaul needed

Recently, the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF) published its paper on Scottish education re-culturing and recalibrating “Liberal education in a neo-liberal world”.   The JRF paper offers a critical summary of policy developments in Scottish education over the past 60 years. For socialists its timely publication offers comparison with a small book on new perspectives on policy and practice “Democratic socialism and education” from Neil Hopkins in England published in 2019.  In reviewing these texts we also reference Jimmy Reid’s Alienation speech at University of Glasgow as it provides the baseline and a backdrop to both text.  In April 1972 Jimmy gave his famed rectorial address as capitalism morphed from its state-managed form into the neo-liberal world.

Both JRF and Hopkins place current education and its recent developments within that neo-liberal world; JRF for Scotland and Hopkins perhaps with greater relevance for England. Marketisation and privatisation are prevalent globally across education systems, perhaps even more so after COVID.  JRF offers an extensive critique of such developments within Scotland particularly at Further Education and Higher Education sectors.  JRF hits the mark with a system-wide policy review identifying and addressing past failures in Scotland across the learners’ journey early years to FE and HE.  Hopkins is more concerned with what a socialist education system could be in the 21st century.   He has a more thematic approach considering pedagogy, curriculum and governance and their similarities and differences within a liberal education and a democratic socialist system    

In the Hopkins small book, he sets out the potential for a democratic socialist set of policies and practice. In doing so he offers the chance to question whether Scottish education is moving towards a more socialist system or is it locked into practices tied to the neo-liberal age.  Is the fragmented and atomised system in England to be our future?

Hopkins’ paper suggests that a common curriculum is necessary much like aspects of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. One of the Scottish curriculum’s strengths, underplayed in JRF, is its universal design. A design that involves a common inclusive nature framed as experiences and outcomes, applicable to every learner in school education from 3-18 years.  Hopkins accepts that a liberal education and a democratic socialist curriculum may be aligned in content. However he sees the need for more associative and communal curriculum making through negotiation in the system with no one agent or agency predominating.    

In Scotland Curriculum for Excellence started with a national debate. Arising from this consideration is the idea that we don’t require another OECD review in Scotland but a renegotiation with civil society in a renewed national debate, especially after COVID.  In Scotland our young people in school education are part of the electorate of the Parliament. Their engagement in re-making the curriculum could be part of engaging our communities and neighbourhoods more effectively in our schools.  For Hopkins the steps towards a more democratic curriculum needs to involve a wider group of curriculum makers. 

Hopkins emphasises democratic participation in pedagogy and seeks ways to balance out attention to individualist, community and collective approaches within both liberal education and a democratic socialist form.  For Scotland, its pedagogical injustices are highlighted by JRF in the continued unsupported use of organising learners through setting and streaming within 21st century classrooms. 

To be positive about the future the Scottish system the esteemed writers of JRF state that scottish education does have aspects that challenge neo-liberalism and constitute steps towards a more socialist system. Some markers are our common, comprehensive schools (apart from 4% private and 2% special), a common curriculum 3-18 framed in terms of an entitlement to a broad general education gained experientially and democratic participation at council level through elected education authorities that have the capacity to balance out centralisation. 

Both the JRF paper and the Hopkins book offer clear steps to move from liberal education in a neo-liberal world towards a democratic socialist approach that recognises, represents and redistributes through inclusive, equitable lifelong learning. 

To return to Jimmy Reid, both papers reflect his broader purpose of education for life not just for work.  Jimmy also placed an emphasis on social crimes in education which again complements the analysis in both text. As Jimmy Reid stated  liberal education commits social crimes against too many of our children and young people. Perhaps we all need to be tough on social crime and tough on the causes of social crime!  For him the “flowering of each individual personality and talents is the pre-condition of everyone’s development”.   Such a communal purpose and collective ideal is the next step to challenge liberal education in the neo-liberal world. 

Key references 

Boyd B. Kelly J. Maitles H. Liberal Education in a Neo-Liberal World: Re-Culturing and Recalibrating Jimmy Reid Foundation (2021)

Hopkins N. Democratic Socialism and Education: New Perspectives on Policy and Practice Springer (2019) 

Reid J. Alienation University of Glasgow (1972) 

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