Bullying by numbers – its roots in neoliberalism

by Terry Wrigley, Visiting Professor, Northumbria University

There is relentless pressure to raise standards – or rather scores – and it’s driving thousands of teachers to quit. The insatiable demands amount to bullying – bullying by numbers, reinforced by a punitive (and numbers-obsessed) inspection regime.

This oppressive use of statistical comparisons is one consequence of neoliberalism and its reduction of all human activity to economic calculations.

boy with apple

Everything is measured by numbers, and what can’t easily be counted (creativity, kindness) just doesn’t matter. The upper secondary curriculum for individual students is often influenced by considerations of statistical advantage to the school rather than student needs. At the other end of the age range, the new Baseline Assessment reduces the complex and uneven development of four-year-olds to a single score.

Numbers appear neutral and therefore authoritative: they present to us as simply an unbiased reflection of the real world, untainted by theories or ideologies. They are anything but.

The numbers used to judge schools are chosen partly for convenience (eg Free School Meals as a proxy for disadvantage) but also to serve a neoliberal political project. Thus assessment is used not to identify areas of weakness and build on strengths in schools, but to place them in competition with each other. The statistics are designed to encourage comparisons between schools and promote mutual dis/advantage.

The ceaseless pressure is leading to acceleration rather than improved understanding. Young children are treated like battery hens – containers of added value.


Numbers aren’t neutral

Numbers don’t just “speak for themselves”. They are designed to tell a particular story. The data is defined and selected to favour particular aspects of learning (eg the phonics check, Ebacc, Progress 8) but because they are presented as numbers, the judgements may seem beyond professional control and disempower teachers from discussing real educational values. Finally Ofsted’s amplification and selective use of all this data serves to target schools for academy conversion.

There is massive collateral damage:

  • Aspects of curriculum which are not rewarded in the statistics end up marginalised – the arts, practical courses, critical literacy, social understanding, for example.
  • Cognitive development is divorced from ethical and emotional.
  • Short term acquisition of knowledge for the next test seems more important than longer-term cognitive development.
  • Relationships and school ethos are valued only as a means to an end.
  • Constant surveillance undermines public trust and teachers’ self-respect.

The oppressive accountability regime is a major cause of escalating workload and the mass exodus from teaching.

These toxic side-effects are well known. Education is in a deep hole, so why do politicians keep digging? The answer lies in their core economic beliefs.


The major driver is neoliberalism. We can understand neoliberalism as an attempt to restore to capitalism all the freedoms it enjoyed in the Nineteenth Century, and free it from “burdens” such as trade unions and the welfare state. This has been the core ideology of big business and most politicians since the 1980s.

It has worked wonders for the mega-rich. One example is that top Chief Executives’ salaries in the USA were 30 times as large as workers’ average earnings in 1970: by the end of the century they were around 500 times as large (David Harvey p.16) This has led to the extreme social divide between the 1% and the rest of us, and 1 in 4 children growing up in poverty. According to the Sunday Times, the wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people has doubled in 5 years while the bulk of the population suffer Austerity.

Neoliberalism has had a dramatic impact in Britain, starting with Margaret Thatcher’s governments. According to David Harvey (p23) this entailed:

confronting trade union power, attacking all forms of social solidarity [eg municipal government, professions], dismantling or rolling back the commitments of the welfare state, the privatization of public enterprises (including social housing)…

There was, she famously declared, “no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families”. All forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility, and family values. “Economics are the method”, she said, “but the object is to change the soul.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the very soul of teaching is now at stake.

The impact on schools and teachers

Under neoliberalism, public services are either converted into businesses, made to serve business, or made to operate as if they were commercial concerns, including business-style management (known as New Public Management). Business sets the moral and organisational standard for all human activity.

The last 30 years have seen a cumulative privatisation: at first, supposedly peripheral services such as school meals and careers advice, then inspection (the creation of Ofsted), and finally schools themselves transferred from local democratic control to the business management of academy chains.

The aims of education have been refocused on the needs of the economy. In policy documents, even nursery education is justified in terms of economic benefit rather than the welfare of children.

Teachers are overwhelmed by new forms of supervision –the “Audit Society”, operating with high-stakes for schools and teachers. This is narrowing our collective vision of education to measures of attainment and “value added”. Teachers are struggling to hold on to their core values, but thinking patterns and daily activity become saturated in the discourse of accountability.

The side-effects are toxic. Children are increasingly seen as categories (“a low-achieving disadvantaged white British SEN male”). Lesson planning is often defensive risk-avoidance, no longer a creative activity. Surveillance, and the threat of surveillance through mocksteds and learning walks, is constant and corrosive.

The wheels are now falling off the bus. The sidelining of local authority planning in favour of academy chains and free schools is leading to a drastic shortage of school places, while the relentless surveillance and bullying by numbers is driving experienced teachers away.

But teachers are resisting and parents are getting worried.

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