Unicorns in the Real World: Triple Discrimination within a Neoliberal Education System
By Jennifer Wilkinson
The Dual Role of Neoliberalism
The current neoliberal system has become a parasitic affront to the core aims of education (B. Bhandar, 2021). Woven into the fabric of education, Neoliberalism has risen to a state of liberal legality. With arbitrary and discriminatory standards of success, this legality obscures the fundamental right to learn. These standards then perpetuate and even justify the segregation of students and the utter abandonment of egalitarianism (C. Newfield, 2006). In this blog, I hope to explore the impact of triple discrimination, gender, social class, and learning difficulties that have rendered me at odds with the traditional neoliberal education system in the UK, which values the free market over the intrinsic right to education, inclusion, and social mobility.
Steven Ball argues that the success of Neoliberalism, or at least of the 21st-century incarnation of Neoliberalism, is owed to its dual application that underpins the ways we conceptualise the paradigms of our reality. On the one hand, Neoliberalism with a capital “N” represents the financial aspects of an economic system that functions through complex relationships between national and global organisations. On the other hand, neoliberalism with a lowercase “n” represents the process by which we construct our reality, the creation of self, and, in proxy, our relations to others. So, there is an “intersection between what is out there in the world and what is within us, mainly because there is an intersection between the way we live and how we feel neoliberalism in practice not just theoretically” (HKU Education Distinguished Lecture on Neoliberal Education by Professor Stephen J. Ball, 2016). To lend this system a sense of legitimacy, the Government and governing bodies, such as Ofsted, satisfy the epistemological demand for evidence by creating “truth” through the use of standardised testing and personal accountability. Through this “truth”, Neoliberalism is raised to a higher standard, and crucially it is through the knowledge of these “truths” that these standards are excepted and perpetuated into the fabric of everything. Which means if we as a society want to begin the arduous task of unpicking these “truths”, then instead of looking at the theoretical meanings of neoliberalism, “the point is to attend to how actually existing neoliberalism get done” (Ball, 2012 p. 93).
As education is, for many, our first experience with social institutions, it seems only natural that the education system has become a pitch on which macro-issues of social justice, equality, and inclusivity can play out on a micro-scale. Nevertheless, more than forty years of neoliberal reforms in the education sector have led to inequalities and the stratification of funding, resources, and study support. Regardless of political party, economic stability (or lack thereof), and social mood, we have become comfortable with the familiar features of a “one-way neoliberal system” that weaponised “symbolic actions” and empty rhetoric (Newfield, 2021). The result being that those Neoliberal policies and their theoretical perceptions have come to underpin the way we conceptualise the paradigms of our society as morally just and as transcending discrimination. Neoliberalism has become the gatekeeper to education and social mobility. The result disproportionately bars minority groups as a whole. With that said, and due to my personal experiences, this blog post will narrow the focus to the effects on women, people from a low socioeconomic background, and people with disabilities that require additional support. And what happens when these characteristics converge within one individual?
Getting Neoliberalism Done
Neoliberalism gets done through the active marginalisation of those who fail to meet the desired standards and thus constructs the “truth” that those who do not thrive in traditional education are somehow lesser. This is how I came to find myself in “special classes”. As a child with a range of complex learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia), my experiences of the education system and English lessons left a lot to be desired. In fact, I spent more time playing Snap than I did in any English lessons. It was made clear to me repeatedly that I was an inconvenience and that my mere presence in a class was a source of frustration for many of my teachers. My lack of progress only increased their frustration and my disappointment, a trend that followed me throughout my youth. My teachers made a habit of pointing out my failings in class and refusing to mark my work, because after all, “What is the point?” The final straw came one fateful parents’ evening when my teachers told my mother, “Don’t give her any false hopes for the future, as she will never learn to write and read and thus will never amount to anything”. I was seven years old. The twin definitions of Neoliberalism (N, n) had found me unsatisfactory, lesser, and lacking.
Yes, there were also progressive teachers, and, by that, I mean the ones who believed in the validity of learning difficulties, which is not always a given, even today. These teachers would continually reel off the same dull rhetoric that “Einstein had dyslexia”. I am sure that these words were meant to inspire and motivate; however, in my youth, I could not help but think, “So what?” The irony is that dyslexia can affect 1 in 5, yet despite years of innovation in education and learning development, they only had this one example to give me of a dyslexia success story. They did not know it at the time, but they indirectly taught me an important lesson: that I would fail unless I were Einstein, which I am not.
As I grew, I started to experience how Neoliberalism acted as the gatekeeper for my future experience, not just as a student with learning difficulties, but also as a growing woman. For example, actively barred from academia, condemned to the severely underfunded special class, unable to access the written materials, I instead was pushed towards other paths that seemed and were actively sold to me as biologically predetermined, such as motherhood. These preconceptions seemed to be compounded by my family’s low socioeconomic position. In my experience, the current system and the gatekeeper acted as circular reinforcement to one another, justifying the interconnectivity of evidence and truth at a systemic level. My lack of life experience and contextual understanding hindered my ability to question these assumptions. After all, my entire life was the small inner-city council estate I grew up on until that point.
Reflecting on these experiences today as a PhD student, I cannot help but remember how utterly alone I felt as a child, as though something was wrong with me, that I was in some way defective. As an adult, these feelings have been echoed back to me a million times over by many others who have had similar experiences due to their learning difficulties, gender, or financial position. Yet, what worries me most is not the stories I heard from others, albeit terrible and upsetting. No, what worries me most is the stories that will never be heard because so many voices have been silenced by the demand for neoliberal “truth” that bastardises creativity and individualism in favour of standardised testing and league tables. There are many “lost Einsteins”, I have no doubt.
So, why, you may ask, did I not simply accept my fate as dictated to me like so many others. Honestly, I feel that my ability to thrive in a system designed to marginalise me was because I leant how Neoliberalism gets done, and moreover, who it gets done by. Now, I do not mean that I understood Neoliberalism’s complex and interconnected nature as a child. As stated above, I am not an Einstein. However, I did learn that to succeed, I would have to play smart, work to my strengths, and adapt. For example, I stopped using slang, changed my dress, and became highly agreeable, smiling politely and apologising continually. As a woman raised on a council estate with complex learning difficulties, these changes were not only significant; they were a prerequisite for social mobility.
Yes, I am convinced that this is exactly what neoliberalism and its gatekeepers want from all of us: to become productive and learn to conform. However, this does not make it right or sustainable for a society whose very existence demands innovation. If we are all reshaped by the interconnectivity of Neoliberalism “N” and “n” to conform, will anything every change? Does this help those on the outskirts, or those whose futures are pre-described? So maybe it is time to forge a new path. Although Neoliberalism has become interwoven into the fabric of our current system, it is by no means infallible. Otherwise, I would not be a PhD student today. Education reflects the values of society as a whole and can be our greatest tool to discriminate or innovate. I, as a woman, as a student with learning difficulties, and as an individual from a low socioeconomic position, made my decisions based on the “truths” I was presented; however, having the space to discuss and reflect on my decision now is just one of the many ways that I can push for change. Every unicorn that thrives in education despite being marginalised brings us one step closer to a world where you will not have to change yourself to succeed, and would that not be a legacy worth leaving?
 Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.
Ball, S. HKU Education Distinguished Lecture on Neoliberal Education. HKU Faculty of Education Lecture, May 11, 2016.
Ball, S. J. (2012). Global Education Inc.: New Policy Networks and the Neoliberal Imaginary (1st ed.). Routledge.
Bhandar, B. Theft in Broad Daylight: Racism and Neoliberal Legality. Law Critique 32, 285–299 (2021).
Newfield, C. The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016, stage 5.
Soudien, Crain & Apple, Michael & Slaughter, Sheila. (2013). Global Education Inc: new policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 34.
Jennifer Wilkinson has a professional background leading reengagement and employability schemes in Leicester through government-funded initiatives in conjunction with Leicester City Council. She became a lecturer of English at an inner-city vocational Further Education college, working with learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, English as a second language, and those who battle mental, emotional, and learning difficulties. She is currently a PhD student with De Monfort University, focusing on Leicester due to its diverse ethnic, racial, and socio-economic demographic. This work seeks to evaluate the changing definition of “functional literacy”, the Government’s role in education policy, and the effect of human capital agendas on alternative qualifications such as functional skills English.
Further articles in the Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes series on TRAFO:
Mathias Foit, Whose History is it? The Challenges and Paradoxes of Studying Queer History in a Neoliberal and Nationalist Context, 24 February 2022,
Anya Heise-von der Lippe, Cripping the Neoliberal University – We need a Politics of Care, 10 February 2022
Tanja Wälty, Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University, 25 January 2022
Alena Sander, Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University, 11 January 2022
Citation: Jennifer Wilkinson, Unicorns in the Real World: Triple Discrimination within a Neoliberal Education System, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.03.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33525