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  • Writer's pictureSharon McCormack

The Neoliberal Education Regime

In researching various educational issues, it has been essential for me to develop an understanding of the “bigger picture” of educational reform. This proves difficult when working within educational systems, as there is not often the opportunity to explore these in depth, and often I have wondered about the why what and how of the decisions by policymakers. My research into the literature related not only to educational but also sociological research literature within the field of education. Engaging in the research literature, has supported a much deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the processes and mechanisms at work in education policy and reforms at an international level. My engagement has resulted in gaining elucidative insights of how many education systems across the globe are reconceptualised, reconstructed and reshaped under a neoliberalism education regime.


In my research, I have developed a deeper appreciation of how the rationales, policies, and mechanisms of the neoliberal education regime are informed and influenced by global policy networks. These networks go beyond governments and consist of “complex, enduring and evolving connections between people, objects and technologies across multiple and distant spaces and times” (Ball, 2017, p. 31). I equate global policy networks as a new form of governance in education systems as they provide space for relationships to form based on power, influence, ideas and economic opportunities in educational reform (Ball, 2012). Within these networks in the exchange of educational policies, education systems are reconceptualised to propagate neoliberal ideas and practices and then “legitimated, disseminated, sometimes enforced and indeed sometimes ‘sold,’ by a set of very powerful and very persuasive agents and organisations” (Ball, 2016a, p. 1047).

This has led to my understanding of how the teaching profession is often marginalised from policy work and education reform as market models can “actively exclude those who do not have the means or opportunity or networks” (Gerrard, 2017, p. 62). The flowchart diagram (see Figure 1), provides a representation of my interpretation of how a broad and diverse range of powerful agents and organisations can legitimise particular interests, priorities and policy preferences through actively influencing policy debates, reframing problems in education policy and advocating solutions to fix policies in education in policy networks (Savage, 2016). The formation of global policy networks provide the opportunity for different agents and organisations to work in reconstructing education systems in order “to seek to make existing markets wider and to create new markets where they did not exist before” (Connell, 2013, p. 100).

Figure 1. Flowchart of agents and organisations influencing the educational experiences within schools for educators and students.


In the neoliberal education regime, I now view education systems as continually being reconstructed to concretise neoliberal ideas and practices. The reforms based on market-based rationales and policies have included the following mechanisms: privatisation, competition, choice, performativity, accountability, autonomy, datafication, comparison (Adamson & Åstrand, 2016; Mundy, Green, Lingard, & Verger, 2016; Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019; Sahlberg, Hasak, Rodrigquez, & Associates, 2017; Zhao, 2018). The reconstruction process of education systems within this regime have been advanced, I recognise, by very dominant discourses advocating the cause of neoliberalism. Through the controlling narratives of these discourse, education is now reduced “to narrow technical questions of the ‘what works?’ variety” (Moss, 2007, p. 233).

In the reconstruction, dominant discourses promote truths in the narratives to explain phenomenon as universal and rational and to make sense of current realities (Moss, 2019). From educational policies to everyday practices, the introduction of new acronyms, terminology and vocabularies, new roles and positions with new titles, strategic improvement and annual actions plans, accountability and evaluations processes, performance reviews, progress and achievement, documentation and reporting all add to the particular narratives of the neoliberal education regime (Ball, 2016b). Such narratives have had detrimental effects upon schools, leaders, teachers, and particularly for children and young people as they are now “identified, measured and embedded into increasingly technical, standardised and regulated practice” (Lester & Russell, 2008, p. 9). These narratives reinforce the perceived ‘truths’ of the neoliberal education regime that market-based reforms are the only way forward in education systems to achieve ‘excellence’ and ‘equity,’ and for all students to receive ‘quality' education. Such truths, narratives and discourses within this regime have also led to the implications of substantially reshaping those within education systems.


Indeed schools, leaders, teachers, and students have all been reshaped in some form within the neoliberal education regime. Ball (2017) contends our values, our social relations and our state of being are all highly influenced by the neoliberalism ideas and practices. Gerrard (2017) argues that market models within a neoliberal education regime “promote a particular type of civic behaviour that rests upon individual gain” (p. 62). The neoliberal education reforms have reshaped the way we now do things and get them done and what it means to be a leader, a teacher and a student in education today (Ball, 2016b). Ball (2013) states, “I struggle against and am constantly enfolded into neoliberalism” and for those in education this is due to the way in which market-based rationales, policies and mechanisms have become internalised and part of everyday practice. These everyday practices have enfolded and possibly engulfed many of us (including myself), resulting in many troubling adverse side effects (Zhao, 2018). Due to the narrowing view of the purpose of education and schooling, there has been a cascading effect that has ultimately reshaped the experiences for educators and students within these education systems (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Cascading negative side effects of the neoliberal education regime.


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Moss, P. (2019). Alternative narratives in early childhood: An introduction for students and practitioners. Oxon, OX: Routledge.

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Sahlberg, P., Hasak, J., Rodrigquez, V., & Associates (Eds.). (2017). Hard questions on global educational change: Policies, practices and the future. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Savage, G. C. (2016). Think tanks, education and elite policy actors. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(1), 35-53. doi:10.1007/s13384-015-0185-0

Savage, G. C. (2018). Neoliberalism, education and curriculum. In B. Gobby & R. Walker (Eds.), Powers of curriculum: Sociological perspectives on education: Oxford University Press.

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Zhao, Y. (2018). What works may hurt: Side effects in education. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

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