Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Neoliberalism has been widely criticised because of its role in prioritising ‘free markets’ as the optimum way of solving problems and organising society. In the field of education, this leads to an emphasis on the knowledge economy that can reduce both persons and education to economic actors and be detrimental to wider social and ethical goals.

This blog extracts some key ideas from a recent book Resisting Neoliberalism in Education, edited by Lyn Tett and Mary Hamilton and published by Policy Press, Bristol, UK. The book provides innovative examples showing how neoliberalism in education can be challenged and changed at local, national and transnational levels in order to foster a more democratic culture. A number of the contributors to the book focus on literacy education, while the overall collection draws more broadly on a range of international contexts across informal, adult, school and university settings.

We welcome comments on this blog and would especially like to hear of examples from your own experience of «resources of hope» that offer opportunities for resistance and change.


Resisting Neoliberalism in Education: Resources of Hope

Lyn Tett, University of Huddersfield and Mary Hamilton, University of Lancaster


In one of his last books, Pedagogy of Indignation Freire argues that neo-liberalism is a deeply fatalistic discourse which ‘speaks about the death of dreams and utopia and deproblematizes the future’ (Freire 2004:110). He reminds us that one of the key roles of critical intellectuals is to reproblematise the social reality of the present and to foster critical awareness of alternatives (see Roberts, 2005). Our aim in this book, (Tett & Hamilton, 2019 therefore, is to offer positive examples of resistance to neoliberal education from across sectors and geographical contexts and to show how these enable neoliberalism to be challenged and changed.

Neoliberalism in education

We understand the defining features of neoliberalism to be a system of thought and practical action within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade that involves deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision (Harvey, 2005). In education this leads to a competitive market approach within which educational goods (such as qualifications, curricula, institutional reputation, expert labour) are branded and exchanged in an international arena (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). This approach prioritises individualisation of achievement and competition rather than collaboration among practitioners and among students. It creates a low trust environment where professionals (and students) have to be monitored and assessed by external yardsticks. The result is that efficiency and monetised values are prioritised over other pedagogical and social values such as diversity, equity, well-being and care. Under neoliberalism education systems have been mandated to develop efficient, creative and problem-solving learners and workers for a globally competitive economy leading to the neglect of its social and developmental responsibilities (Olssen, 2009). These institutionalised practices have been partially accomplished by persuading each individual teacher and learner to treat the effects of neoliberalism as personal rather than structural and so these become accepted by individuals as normal rather than as in need of critique and transformation. A key way in which this acceptance happens is through is the use of a plethora of metrics such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD, 2016). These assessments are used to measure performativity through a focus on market considerations, which does not necessarily reflect the core values of the work, that is, the quality of the teaching, inclusion and relationships (Lynch, 2006).

Our contention is that such a system is in fundamental tension with traditional approaches and understandings of education. Living within such an environment is therefore challenging for all those participating in it. But as Foucault (1998: 95) has argued, ‘where there is power there is resistance’ because resistance involves recognising and questioning socialised norms and constraints through discourse. Whilst discourse ‘reinforces [power], it also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart’ (ibid: 101). Drawing on Foucault provides a way of thinking about resistance that focuses on the role of subjectivity and transgression in refusing to accept the neoliberal practices of performativity (Ball and Olmedo, 2013). This book is an exploration of how people in different positions within neoliberal education are responding to it and where they find resources and strategies to manage the tensions and contradictions they encounter.


When we envisage resistance we often think of it as collective, public, political activity but there are many types of resistance. In this book we argue that the concept has two central dimensions: resistance must involve action (physical, material or symbolic) and be oppositional in that actors challenge or subvert dominant discourses and practices in some way. Resistance also needs to be intentional although some actions, such as when practitioners avoid using reporting mechanisms that they consider unfair to the people they work with, may be hidden from the view of powerful authorities. Resistance is also interactional because it is ‘defined not only by resisters’ perceptions of their own behaviour but also by their targets’ recognition of, and reaction to, this behaviour’ (Hollander and Einwohner, 2004: 548). The possible resources and strategies will differ from context to context but a sense of action and of opposition holds these expressions of resistance together.

The different forms of resistance identified by Hollander and Einwohner are usefully integrated within a strand of literature dealing with “everyday resistance”. These are less visible forms of resistance that Scott (1990) links to the notion of ‘transcripts’ (hidden and public) which are established ways of behaving and speaking that fit particular actors in particular social settings, whether dominant or oppressed. Resistance is a subtle form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumour, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity’ (1990: 137). He argues that ‘most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites’ (Scott 1985: 136). Johansson and Vinthagen (2016) add to this framework the term ‘repertoire of resistance’, which they argue is ‘a combined result of the interplay between social structures and power relations, as well as activists’ creative experimentation with tactics and experiences of earlier attempts to practise resistance, together with the situational circumstances in which the resistance is played out’ (ibid. p. 421). This means that groups develop a collection of ways of resisting that they understand and are able to handle that are embedded in relationships and processes of interaction between the resisters and their targets. These repertoires are organised in specific contexts according to the historical and current power configurations, time, space and relationships in which they are embedded.

Resources of hope

Lilja and colleagues (2017) have demonstrated the link between these forms of ‘everyday’ resistance and more organised civil-society-based resistance. They point out that the latter ‘can encourage and create yet other forms of everyday resistance through being inspired or provoked into new resistant identities’ (p.52). They also show, however, that if resistance is unsuccessful, it eventually discourages action and people put their innovative energies into more productive issues. So, we aim to encourage action by providing resources in this book that are designed to help us find innovative and productive ways of challenging inequalities in education. In particular, we present those that subvert and challenge narrow curricula and pedagogies that privilege the dominant culture. We agree with Williams that we need to have an education system that is redesigned so that it provides full ‘human relevance and control…[and] emphasises not the ladder but the common highway’, [because every person’s] ‘ignorance diminishes me, and every [person]’s skill is a common gain of breath’ (1989: 15).

Getting to this point though, means that we have to engage with a variety of ways of challenging the dominant culture of neoliberalism. Williams (1977) suggests that such challenges occur not only through struggle and action but also through changes in deep structures of feeling and imagination. In particular, he argues that dominant discourses ‘select from and consequently exclude the full range of human practice [yet some] experiences, meanings, and values are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of some residue – cultural as well as social – of some previous social and cultural institution or formation’ (p.125). These residual resources were formed in the past, but are still ‘active in the cultural process …as an effective element of the present’ (p.123) through people’s ‘practical consciousness’. In addition to these resources there is ‘emergent’ culture which carries new meanings and values, and ‘depends crucially on finding new forms or adaptions of forms’ (p.126). Throughout the book there are illustrations of the use of both these forms of culture as resources with which to challenge and change neoliberalism so that the full range of knowledge can be expressed within education. The themes raised and the conceptual resources deployed reflect a range of perspectives that have the common aim of addressing questions of how the power of the neoliberal discourse might be resisted in education. the book is organised in five sections.

The first three sections are focused on local contexts of resistance and how it is enacted in the fields of adult, school and higher education. The next section focuses on school education while the final one shows how, even at the transnational level, it is possible to disrupt the neoliberal discourse.

10 Key Strategies

The notion of hope is explicitly referred to by several contributors as central to affirming identity and emboldening action.We have taken Raymond Williams notion of “resources of hope” (Williams, 1989) to draw together the rich variety of responses offered by contributors to the book and to identify what Milana & Rapana (2019: pp. 167-180) call “interstices for resistance” – points where it is possible to intervene to disrupt the dominant neoliberal regime and to help emergent, more emancipatory cultures to take root.

Some of these resources are directly relevant to educational practitioners, suggesting strategies that can be used in teaching or other aspects of institutional practice. Some are resources that can guide educational researchers in designing and carrying out ‘resistant’ research that foregrounds alternatives to neoliberal values. Some are principles and rules of thumb that can be used in both practice and research.

Many involve collaboration with others, with the aim of pooling resources and widening the spaces for action. Such collaborations can be formalised through organized public events and networks but the contributors to this book also assert the value of persisting with what may seem like mundane, everyday, acts of resistance that are based on seeing and seizing opportunities to do and say things differently. Such acts are, they argue, the bedrock for fostering wider change. Below we identify ten key ideas gathered from across the chapters that contribute to such changes.

  1. Many chapters make the point that a core aspect of resistance in a difficult or hostile environment is to find ways to create dialogic, emancipatory spaces which are affirming, positive and culturally sensitive for those participating in them. Identifying and forcing open such spaces requires sustained effort and strong commitment. In practice this can be done via pedagogy and curriculum and making opportunities for professional exchange of experiences, opinions, learning, collective action and mutual aid. It is not just the collective action itself that gets results, but the process of developing this action that builds knowledge useful for resistance. Sometimes it is a matter of looking for the potential in existing places, and perhaps working to revision these.
  2. Prioritising learner perspectives. We need to change the centre of gravity of whose perspectives count within curriculum and pedagogy, to overturn negative classifications of learners and to revision students of all ages as agentic subjects and citizens with rights.
  3. Harnessing communication technologies to amplify local and submerged voices and to model citizenship within educational practice. A local dialogic, emancipatory space has much more power if it can be shared as a model and replicated or extended across many community settings and digital technologies make such sharing readily achievable.
  4. Explicit sharing of core values among practitioners enables them to resist negative changes and to counter neoliberal values of commodification and competition. Underpinning professional values make everyday tactics meaningful and can be effectively supported by informal professional networks and by more formal trade union action.
  5. Fostering Creativity both directly with learners and in dealing with the institutional demands of policy. Narrow, assessment driven curricula can be countered through interdisciplinary partnerships between teachers, visual artists and writers, incorporating performance and artistic activities inspired by indigenous knowledges into the curriculum and multiple modes of expression. Such pedagogies change the dynamic between teachers, children and peers. At the institutional level, creativity involves resourcefulness in reinterpreting policy discourses, finding ways to compromise with these in order to obtain needed resources, looking out for and seizing opportunities to do things differently.
  6. Collaborating with new groups who share similar values; including international colleagues and organizations.. For discursive shifts to happen a wider range of people need to be assembled around the policy tables, creating an enlarged policy space for working on designs for new forms of education.
  7. It is important to use both horizontal (peer alliances) and vertical (institutional) strategies to pressure for change, combining strategies from all interested participants – students, support staff, parents and citizens. Tactical work arounds become more meaningful when combined with a good knowledge of how institutional structures work and awareness of realistic possibilities for change. It is important to develop understandings of how soft power operates, making a technocratic expert system open and transparent so that you can act to intervene if appropriate.
  8. Developing and encouraging a “knowledge commons” using and strengthening possibilities for open access to information by resisting paywalls and the domination of large-scale publishing companies. It is urgent to keep libraries open as physically ungated and welcoming spaces which can offer support for discussion, mutual aid and everyday workplace acts of resistance.
  9. Encouraging both learners and professionals to take shared responsibility for promoting education as a common good rather than assuming it is for someone else or some institutional force to change the neoliberal status quo. This involves encouraging forms of educational provision that are based on active citizenship and inclusive values.
  10. The final key point – and perhaps the core contribution of this book – is about the possibilities of using educational research itself as a resource for hope and for making change. Since many contributors are researchers as well as experienced practitioners, they have developed strong arguments about this which complement the practice-oriented strategies outlined above. Firstly, they assert the importance of documenting local experience and valuing participant perspectives in investigating research problems, Offering alternative concepts and analyses of issues can help people make new meaning of their experiences and to understand that discourses have material social outcomes. This can also be achieved through research which makes institutional systems and spaces of governance transparent through offering information about less visible aspects and dynamics of governance. Researching history can recover lost or submerged knowledges, help maintain and strengthen “residual cultures” and identify continuities in change, evidenced through the actions and statements of certain ministers and officials. Historical research can reconnect us with core alternative values and show the continuity of these values into the present.


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