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Academies and the neoliberal project: the lessons and costs of the conveyor belt

Having studied one of Britain's flagship academies it seems that their good results may come at a high social cost - something the media talks far less about.

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At the start of each lesson at Beaumont Academy in the inner London borough of Redwood, students must put their planners on their desks, place their bags on the floor and stand straight behind their desks before reciting the academy reflection: ‘Throughout this lesson I aspire to maintain an inquisitive mind, a composed disposition and an alert ear so that in this class, and all classes, I can fulfill my true potential’. I frequently regarded this recitation, which Beaumont students repeat six times per day, while researching this celebrated flagship academy for my doctoral thesis; pupils face punishment if it is not delivered with ‘the appropriate respect.’ (A paper from the author on these issues can be read here) Beaumont’s reflection encapsulates academies' neoliberal educational approach: rather than the individual acting as a citizen, the individual commits to self-fulfillment by consuming education. While Beaumont might appear to borrow from the progressive educationalist’s handbook and foster an array of unique individualities, this brand of education is not about self-expression, critical thinking or participatory debate, but compliance, conformity and surveillance as an efficient means of producing exam results.

The context

Introduced by New Labour in 2002 and adapted from Thatcher’s City Technology Colleges, academies receive funding directly from central government and operate outside of local authority control. Academies were originally established to replace ‘the poverty of aspiration’ in disadvantaged areas like Redwood with ‘a culture of ambition’. Structural inequalities are presented as individualised problems experienced by those with the wrong attitude. Despite freedom from local governance, academies are hardly free from the education market’s demands. Beaumont’s head, Sir Stanton, announced in a governor's meeting, 'We will live or die by those [GCSE] results – it's the first thing that people look at…’

Forty percent of Beaumont students receive free school meals, while over 80 percent come from ethnic minority backgrounds, with black African, black Caribbean, Turkish, Bangladeshi and Indian students comprising the largest groups. Poverty and ethnic diversity are frequently juxtaposed with Beaumont’s outstanding test scores; in 2012, 89% of students received five A* to C GCSE pass grades including English and maths. Beaumont has dazzled politicians and received a revolving door of visitors keen to replicate its success, yet this uplifting tale ignores the more complicated stories underlying Beaumont’s triumphant veneer. After over 18 months of ethnographic observation and interviews with students, teachers and parents, the myriad contradictions of this supposedly liberatory model became apparent.

Dealing with ‘urban children’

Beaumont’s panoptic design creates the ideal environment to steadily manufacture results. Glass-fronted classrooms and offices are on permanent display, while the lack of staff room and continual surveillance by the senior management team (SMT) induces what SMT member Ms Davis described as a state of ‘constant inspection.’ Teacher Ms Burke felt Beaumont was ‘like a factory’, while Ms Taylor thought it was ‘like being in a science experiment.’ Ms Davis likens Beaumont’s ‘disciplined’ precision to a ‘well-oiled’ machine: ‘it's kept up to good operational standards and it's regularly fixed if it goes wrong. So it's able to deliver if you like, its passengers’. From sending children home for wearing suede rather than black leather shoes to patrolling the surrounding area by car and on foot to ensure students do not enter chicken shops or socialize on street corners in uniform, Beaumont’s attention to detail is relentless.

Hard discipline is seen as necessary to move Redwood’s ‘urban children’ along its conveyor belt. In our interview, principal Stanton described how Beaumont’s ‘structure liberates’ ethos is centred on ‘the belief that children who come from unstructured backgrounds, as many of our children do, and often very unhappy ones, should be given more structure in their lives.’ Yet ‘rituals and routines’ are only necessary for urban children. Stanton describes how ‘you can be a lot more relaxed and free and easy in a nice, leafy middle-class area where the ground rules are clear before they come in, where children go home to lots of books and stuff like that’. Beaumont’s ethos is steeped in pathological representations of Redwood as home to a raced, classed deficit culture in need of transformation through a return to law and order. Unstructured unhappiness becomes synonymous with the 'urban child’, as several teachers use this shorthand to describe ‘Redwood kids’. This urban child is contrasted with the ideal student – the suburban middle-class, predominantly white child.  

Stanton openly describes working-class families as problematic: ‘A child going home to a home which doesn’t value education, doesn’t support their child, where there are no books, where there is no experience of higher education ...that’s the bigger problem.’ Beaumont teachers must become a ‘surrogate parent’ to these children, ready to ‘substitute and take over when necessary’. With over eighty percent of students coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, there is an inevitable overlap between working-class children and children from ethnic minority backgrounds. Race becomes an embedded yet unspoken element underpinning ‘urban children’, as class becomes a more acceptable way to talk race without mentioning it.

Discipline is presented as the antidote to cultural problems. Stanton pronounces, ‘We'll spread the message of Beaumont to other schools. Beaumont will become an empire’. Sara Ahmed (2010) has re-described empire’s civilizing mission as a happiness mission, and Stanton’s neo-imperial stance positions urban children as requiring civilising to become happier, less ethnic and more middle-class subjects. Florence, a black British, working-class sixth former, pointed out how Stanton's comments benefitted Beaumont at the expense of students like herself:

...it's kind of his way… of making this place seem better than it actually is because a lot of us are from okay backgrounds. We are not living in the slums or anything. I think it is his way of trying to become like Mother Teresa, but I just think he is not necessarily doing it in the right way… it's a bit mean saying that, because Redwood itself has a stigma already, so just to say poor deprived background blah, blah, blah.

Hyperbolic rags-to-riches stories are encouraged by a system where schools compete for survival. Reiterating stigmas creates a more impressive media story as Stanton’s 'oasis in the desert’ salvages urban children.

Keeping the conveyor belt moving

Beaumont’s well-oiled production line does not have time for the messy business of consensus-building. Numerous teachers were frustrated by the long-hours culture and management’s lack of transparency. Ms Hatcher described how teachers felt distrusted, with ‘decisions being made without proper consultations... I think quite often the manner in which teachers get spoken to is like children by some of the senior management team.’ Ms Austin said ‘There is not much choice in anything that we do... although there's people in power and they are telling you what to do, it's not necessarily them who have actually made any kind of decision or agree with it.’ Although Mr Mitchell agreed with Beaumont’s approach, he jokingly referred to it as 'compassionate fascism'.

Beaumont’s missing staff room was an intentional design decision. According to management, its omission prevented factionalism while increasing productivity. SMT-member Mr Vine described staff rooms as 'a breeding ground for negativity... where people get together and talk about others or moan'. However many teachers connected the lack of communal space and non-stop pace to poor staff cohesion. Mr Arkanel thought Beaumont has ‘been planned very well to split, control…’ with divisions stopping teachers from communicating about labour conditions, as anti-union sentiment has literally been built into Beaumont’s walls.

Unsurprisingly, Stanton is uninterested in negotiation, bluntly stating that if teachers do not agree with his 'philosophy' or 'don't want to sign up to it, that's fine by me. But don't work here'. Stanton felt teachers were idealistic people, but added that ‘whiners’ needed to ‘stop moaning, get on with it’. Stanton describes how teachers are accountable for their performance as accountability is passed down the line, however consensual decision-making is not distributed. Management through dictation becomes a more efficient strategy than listening to teachers.

Division and dictation is more rigidly replicated with students. Groups of more than six students are dispersed in the playground, and physical contact is strictly prohibited. Students repeatedly emphasised the importance of following rules without arguing back or even smiling, while the majority complained that Beaumont did not listen to students. Thirteen-year-old Abisola said it would be nice if students had a voice in things, while sixteen-year-old Samuel described how Beaumont only took advice on ‘minimal things’ like the placement of playground benches:

You can voice your opinion, but I think the school won't listen or will just put you in isolation or something like that... the school is very autocratic, it does not like to listen to suggestions and ideas, it just thinks about what is right for them.

Florence described how Beaumont ‘ignored’ the student council’s advice, while parent Eve described how sixth formers requested permission to attend the protest against tuition fees in November 2010. While laughing at this submissiveness, Eve conceded that due to Beaumont's disciplinary environment ‘…they know no child is going to get violent, no child is going to push. The kids - the kids are scared.’ Students’ limited experience and expectation of agency inculcated by disciplinarian tactics shows the paradoxical nature of Beaumont’s supposedly liberatory structures, as students (and teachers) learn that attempting to affect change is futile.

This docility extends to a lack of critical thinking. Parent Alexander relates: ‘I remember saying to a teacher...I said to him, “What is important is the ability of kids to think”. He said, “Well, if you wanted them to think, you sent them to the wrong school”’. Learning is not about negotiating ideas or understanding, but reproducing information, as the innovation promised by academy rhetoric is foreclosed by the results imperative. Yet most students endured and adapted to Beaumont’s structures for the future promise of good results. Sixth-former Alara remarked, ‘you need to kind of go along with the system if you want to make sure you get the best outcome for yourself.’ Alara’s comment epitomises Stuart Hall’s (1989) warning about how rejecting interdependence and embracing the concept of the self-interested individual who places ethical reservations aside to focus on self-advancement ultimately leaves us only our salaries - or results - to defend.

Several teachers expressed reservations about Beaumont’s methods. Mr Ba felt the ethos was ‘working’, but questioned if aggressive tactics ‘mistreated’ children: ‘I think the shouting, the bellowing... I don't think that's right. I don't think you need to scream as if you want to almost harm a child to some extent.’ Ms Fletcher and Ms Hatcher found being aggressive difficult, yet felt these techniques were difficult to contest given Beaumont’s results. Parent Veronica ambivalently described Beaumont’s atmosphere:

It's security before all. Security and safety… there's a bit of fear… that culture of fear. Which is part of my mixed feelings towards it, even though it works for my daughter. It's fantastic, whatever, but there is this doubt - this negative feeling which perhaps has more significance with other groups.

White, middle-class Veronica acknowledges Beaumont’s 'culture of fear' may affect other parents differently. Working-class, mixed-race parent Danese epitomises this difference, tearfully describing ‘bullying and intimidation’ at Beaumont. Yet the production of results ultimately placed Beaumont’s methods beyond reproach, as most participants resigned themselves to the idea that Beaumont would not ‘work’ otherwise. Neoliberal governance not only actively works to deplete agency and imagination, but as Jodi Dean (2009) describes, presents its economic and political project as inevitably without alternative. Beaumont’s intensive micro-management of space, time and social relations highlights neoliberalism’s contradictory promise: this hands-off approach promises autonomy, yet hands (and eyes and ears) are everywhere.

The (whitish) middle-class buffer zone

Despite its rhetoric, Beaumont’s structures work to privilege Redwood’s white middle-classes who are not urban 'natives’, but retain their association with 'nice, leafy areas'. Teacher Mr Wainwright suggested Beaumont was more classist than racist. Reading race and class through one another, he said: ‘sometimes when I look at the white middle-class children I wonder if they are getting away with things that other children wouldn't’, putting this down to middle-class parents’ capacity to ‘work the system’ and Beaumont’s need for the middle-classes:

If every single child in a 1,000 cohort is somebody who is really hard to keep safe with, who is defiant, who is involved in gangs, then that's too much. You almost need to have a buffer zone of, I don't know, three hundred kids who actually are not going to be any problem…

In a marketised landscape where survival is predicated on the steady generation of results, the middle-class child – envisioned as white – becomes a valuable commodity. Rather than blaming individuals, Mr Wainwright signals how structural issues gives the ‘buffer zone’ an automatically advantageous position whereby maintaining fairness becomes 'quite a difficult battle sometimes'.

Ms Hatcher highlights the complex range of factors at play in this battle, relating her frustration over the permissive treatment of a disruptive ‘extremely clever’ white, middle-class student:

…I remember saying to a friend at the time, 'I swear if that kid was black, he would have been out of here’. Not out of here, but it would have been taken a lot more seriously. I think not necessarily race all the time, but sometimes like ability-wise and stuff… if that said kid had come in with a knife for example, I know for a fact he would not have been expelled because of his ability. Then again, that's all the results-driven thing that everyone believes in here.

This permissive treatment not only echoes the continuing criminalization of black boys, but shows how this interacts with and is compounded by a results-driven culture.

The uneven contours of the conveyor belt

Middle class students transcend the pathological effects of institutional perceptions and treatment. Thirteen year-old white middle-class Poppy recognized her ideal student status and felt this kept her under Beaumont’s disciplinary radar. Although born in Redwood, Poppy describes her social group as 'not typical Redwood kids', differentiating herself from ‘urban children’ much as Stanton does. Poppy said 'Oh yes, they always say that this school is fair, but it's not true!', describing how Beaumont ‘incessantly’ picked on certain students, particularly boys in lower sets. Once these boys had done something wrong once or twice, they would always be in trouble. Gazi, a thirteen-year-old half Irish, half Turkish working-class student in a lower ability grouping grappled with this predicament and described his efforts to escape a bad reputation, concluding ‘I am just bad in this school.’ Tameka, a black British working-class student in lower sets also explained that 'just because my friends “spud” does not mean we are selling drugs or being violent’, it was just how they talked.

Several students discussed how predominantly ethnic minority groups were continuously broken up in the playground while groups of white students were overlooked. Tameka thought this was due to racism, yet Joshua, a top-set, middle-class Nigerian student suggested this was about comportment, describing how black students tended to be louder and use bigger expressive gestures, while white people ‘are just compact, controlled and concise. The three c’s.’ Larger gestures and louder sounds were seen to attract discipline, whereas stationary, quiet white students were regarded as non-threatening - regardless of whether or not students were doing anything subversive. While Joshua questioned Beaumont’s practices, he felt racism was impossible given Beaumont’s diversity: 'I'm just guessing they have a logical explanation for why they treat the two groups differently… apart from skin colour’.

Performing ‘the three c's’ was not limited to the white body. Joshua described how he increasingly avoided loud groups of students and his ethnically-mixed friendship group routinely displayed this comportment. Half white British and half black African sixth former Olivia described how she ‘morphed’ herself into the ‘perfect Redwood princess’ during primary school when she was friends with ‘Redwood kids’, but since coming to Beaumont she had stopped dropping her T’s. While Olivia reminisces about growing up on an estate, her mother was a teacher so she was ‘well-spoken’. Olivia speculates that had she attended another school, she probably would have red weave in her hair, but 'I have ended up becoming more white’ at Beaumont. Meanwhile, Tameka is aware of the negative judgments surrounding her gestures, accent and appearance. Although she refuses to accept that her practices are innately wrong, Tameka also sees a need to change herself. Tameka thinks she probably needs to be 'less street' and wearing heels and skirts as part of the formal sixth-form dress code would be 'good practice', making her more 'lady-like’.

Fitting into Beaumont’s landscape entails a raced, classed and gendered process of loss and gain; students must temper essentialised representations of blackness and working-classness to become ideal. Through distancing and differentiating himself from the 'loud' and more working-class black students like Tameka, Joshua transcends pathological blackness through class and escapes being perceived as an ‘urban child’. Olivia undergoes a similar shift, as shedding working-class styles of speech and dress whitens her. Although this movement required loss, Olivia did not adopt completely alien ways, but reverted to once-familiar habits, however students like Gazi and Tameka occupy more precarious positions and must labour to fit onto the conveyor belt. Tameka does not have a 'well-spoken’ accent to recall, but must try on unfamiliar ways of being after recognising her devalued position.

Conclusion

This article shows some of the lessons and costs of education’s neoliberal conveyor belt. Rather than embracing heterogeneity, Beaumont crafts a homogenous, universal ideal student body rooted in whitish, middle-class norms. It practises forms of structural bias while simultaneously ignoring their structuring capacity as market mechanisms perpetuate the white middle-class pupil as privileged ideal. However there are openings for other students to be incorporated into this space if they fit the template. Paul Gilroy (2013) has discussed how neoliberal capitalism has the capacity to break with a racist pigmentocracy under certain conditions. Yet with these breaks come simultaneous closures. Becoming an ideal neoliberal subject requires labour, loss and conformity, as ethnic minority and working class students must estrange themselves from familiar ways of being to gain legitimacy, as working class and ethnic minority cultures are deemed valueless.

Beaumont’s practices reflect the democratic vacuum at the heart of academy policy, demonstrating the sort of educational landscapes produced by the implementation of neoliberal logic. Through examining what Beaumont teaches young people as it processes them and the labour conditions created for teachers, we can observe some of the costs of underpinning Beaumont’s conveyor belt and its promotion of ‘good life fantasies’ (Berlant 2011). Beaumont’s promotion of docility as a means of efficiently producing results exemplifies the shift from citizen to consumer, whereby students and teachers must perform compliance to stay on the conveyor belt.

About the author

Christy Kulz recently completed a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths College which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Her thesis was recently shortlisted for the British Educational Research Association’s Doctoral Dissertation Award. She currently is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and working as the lead researcher on a project for the Communities Empowerment Network focusing on school exclusions and social inequality and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. You can follow her at @ChristyKulz.


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