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ISSN: 0305-4985 (Print) 1465-3915 (Online) Journal homepage:

Children of the market: performativity, neoliberal

responsibilisation and the construction of student


Amanda Keddie

To cite this article: Amanda Keddie (2016) Children of the market: performativity, neoliberal

responsibilisation and the construction of student identities, Oxford Review of Education, 42:1,

108-122, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2016.1142865

To link to this article:

Published online: 03 Feb 2016.Submit your article to this journal Article views: 7097View related articles View Crossmark dataCiting articles: 29 View citing articles OxfOrd review Of educatiOn, 2016

vOL. 42, nO. 1, 108–122

Children of the market: performativity, neoliberal

responsibilisation and the construction of student identities

Amanda Keddie

t he university of Queensland, a ustralia


I got a Bronze medal and I was annoyed because I didn’t get the Silver, if I had got Silver I would

have been annoyed because I didn’t get Gold. If I got Gold I would have been annoyed because I

hadn’t got into the Europe Championship, if I got into the Europe Championship I’d be annoyed

because I didn’t win. If I did win … I would be annoyed because my handwriting wasn’t neat

enough. It’s like I appreciate it but then I think about all the stuff I could have done better and

then I just end up annoyed.

These comments are from ‘Rebecca’ who is in Year 6 at ‘Saffron’ Primary School. They refer to

her performance in the Junior Maths Challenge (run by the United Kingdom Trust), which

is aimed at pupils in Year 8. Rebecca offered this example to me to illustrate her descrip –

tion of herself as a ‘really bad perfectionist’—as someone who is never satisfied with her

performance, no matter how good and as someone who always wants to do better. The

comments are an apt introduction to this paper as they reflect its focus on children’s take

up of the neoliberal discourses of performativity and individual responsibilisation in their

ABSTRACTThis paper draws on interview data gathered from a broader study

concerned with examining issues of social justice, cultural diversity

and schooling. The focus is on five students in Years 5 and 6 who

attend a primary school located on the edge of a class-privileged

area in outer London. The children are all high achievers who are very invested in doing well in school and in life within the parameters

of neoliberalism. The paper examines the ways in which neoliberal

discourses of performativity and individual responsibilisation

permeate the children’s talk in relation to their understandings of

education and their future, and their worth and value as students.

Such examination enriches the findings of important research in this

area that draws attention to the ways in which neoliberal discourses

have become naturalised and taken-for-granted in what counts as

being a good student and a good citizen. The paper problematises

the individualism, competitiveness and anxiety produced by these

discourses and provides further warrant for supporting students to

identify, challenge and think beyond them.

© 2016 taylor & f rancis

KEYWORDSStudent identities;

neoliberalism and

schooling; performativity;


CONTACT amanda Keddie OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 109

constructions of themselves as worthwhile. In these comments we can see an existence of

calculation in relation to Rebecca valuing herself in reference to external measures of success

(performativity) while we can also see her accepting personal responsibility for such suc –

cess (neoliberal responsibilisation). The individualism, competitiveness and anxiety within

Rebecca’s remarks permeated the talk of the five high achieving students who are featured

in this paper. The neoliberal student subject has been the focus of much research (see McLeod, 2000;

Thompson, 2010; walkerdine, Lucey & Melody, 2001; wilkins, 2012a; 2012b; Youdell, 2004).

Such research has examined how the imperatives of neoliberalism, which are reflected espe –

cially in the individualism and competition encouraged by the ‘audit culture’ in education,

have impacted on students’ identities. Broadly speaking, this culture utilises business-derived

concepts of measurement, evaluation and comparison (Leys, 2003) to represent school effec –

tiveness and has reduced students (as well as teachers and schools) to ‘auditable commodi-

ties’, so they may be efficiently held to account and assessed against quantifiable standards

of ‘success’ (see Ball, 2003). Students in today’s classrooms are children of the market, that is

to say, they are crafting their identities and making sense of their educational and employ –

ment experiences and choices within the context of neoliberal imperatives. Given that these

imperatives have been hegemonic in shaping social relations in contexts such as England

for approximately 30 years, they are seen by the current generation of students as natural

or normal (see nairn & Higgins, 2007; O’flynn & Petersen, 2007; wilkins, 2012a, 2012b ).

within these imperatives, contemporary students are living a ‘performative’ and entrepre –

neurial existence of calculation that involves organising themselves in response to targets,

indicators and evaluations (Ball, 2003; Rose, 1989). They are ‘commodified’ both in their ability

level and their capacity to add value to, or enhance, their own and their school’s reputation,

and in their future capacity to contribute to society through the job market. Success in this

climate involves being enterprising and competitive. It involves students achieving on the

measures of success that ‘count’ (e.g. achieving a successful learner identity through high

performance on standardised academic tests and achieving a successful worker identity—

that is, being economically successful—through attaining the appropriate credentialing

from education) (nairn & Higgins, 2007). All this is possible through working hard and har –

nessing individual abilities and talents (see McLeod, 2000; nairn & Higgins, 2007). Gaining

positional advantage through hard work is, of course, a central platform of neoliberal dis-

course obfuscating the reality that such advantage is generally only available to class and

race privileged groups with distinctly gendered effects (see McLeod, 2000; nairn & Higgins,

2007; walkerdine et al., 2001).

This then is the ideal neoliberal subject; one who actively and purposefully crafts their

identity to be worthy against these parameters of success. Such crafting involves much

work on the self in terms of developing skills and engaging in activities that add ‘value’ and

that lead to self enhancement (see Apple, 2001; Ball, 2003; davies & Bansel, 2007; f rancis,

Skelton & Read, 2009; O’f lynn & Petersen, 2007; Rose, 1989). f or students this invariably

means practising for tests or engaging in extra tuition to enhance academic attainment.

Operating within these neoliberal discourses can offer possibilities for creating a ‘trium-

phant [student] self ’ who is outstanding and above average (see Ball, 2003; w ilkins, 2012a).

However, as we can clearly see from Rebecca’s comments about ‘bad perfectionism’, it can

also lead to ‘ontological insecurity’; a sense of uncertainty, dissatisfaction and guilt about

whether one is doing enough, doing the right thing, or doing as much or as well as others 110 A. KEddIE

(Ball, 2003; walkerdine et al., 2001). This insecurity is a highly individualised and personal

process. The individualism within neoliberal discourses locates responsibility for educational

success and failure with the student— as a matter of free will or choice (see wilkins, 2012a,

2012b; Youdell, 2004). According to Olmedo (2014, p. 583), ‘responsibility and duty are two

key aspects in the new moral agency brought in’ by these discourses. The significance of

these aspects is outlined by Shamir (2008, p. 4) when he states: ‘while obedience [was] the

practical master-key of top-down bureaucracies, responsibility is the practical master-key’

of new governance. Referred to as neoliberal responsibilisation (a mechanism of neoliberal

governmentality, f oucault, 1991), this is a form of governance that can be seen as position-

ing students as:

… autonomous, self-determined and self-sustaining subjects whose moral quality is based on

the fact that they rationally assess the costs and benefits of a certain act as opposed to other

alternative acts. As the choice of options for action is, or so the neo-liberal notion of rationality

would have it, the expression of free will on the basis of a self-determined decision, the conse –

quences of the action are borne by the subject alone, who is also solely responsible for them.

(Lemke in Shamir, 2008, pp. 7–8)

It is against this backdrop that this paper foregrounds the voices of five primary school

students in Years 5 and 6. The children, ‘Lucien’, ‘Adam’, ‘Christopher’, ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Sophia’

are all high achievers who are very invested in doing well in school and in life within the

parameters of neoliberalism. The focus in this paper is on the ways in which neoliberal dis-

courses of performativity and individual responsibilisation permeate their talk in relation to

their understandings of education and their future, and their worth and value as students.

The paper makes an important contribution to research in this area in highlighting the ways

in which neoliberal discourses have taken hold of the lives of young people; how they have

become naturalised and taken-for-granted in what counts as being a good student and a

good citizen (davies & Petersen, 2005; McLeod, 2000; O’flynn & Petersen, 2007; Thompson,

2010; w ilkins, 2012a, 2012b; Youdell, 2004). Given the clear costs of these discourses in their

production of individualism, competitiveness and anxiety, the paper provides further warrant

for finding ways to support students to identify, disrupt and think beyond them.

Research context and processes

The data presented in this paper derive from a broader study concerned with examining

issues of social justice, cultural diversity and schooling in three English schools. One of these

schools was ‘Saffron’ Primary. Saffron is located on the edge of a class-privileged area in outer

London. It is close to a social housing estate and a women’s refuge and caters to an inter –

esting diversity of students. Approximately half of the student body of 300 is white (Anglo)

middle class, while the remaining half is from highly diverse and generally less-privileged

backgrounds. The proportion of students at the school assessed as eligible for f ree School

Meals and as having special education needs is higher than the national average. Such

circumstances, as the Head Teacher ‘Sally’ noted, meant that her school is not a ‘first choice’

school in the area and thus is ‘never full’. However, the school is well regarded—its current

Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) rating is ‘Good’. The study’s broader concerns

with social justice led to a focus on matters of accountability and equity at each of the three

schools. At Saffron, as with the other schools (see Keddie, 2013, 2014), this focus led to exam –

ining administrators’, teachers’ and students’ views about external modes of accountability OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 111

and their various impacts on students and, in particular, the regimes of external high stakes

testing such as SATs (Standardised Achievement Tests) and Ofsted inspections. In this paper,

the focus is on students’ views of education and their sense of identity within the priorities

of these broader modes of accountability. Certainly, as with most schools, Saffron had taken

on board the competition embedded in this culture despite clear resistance from the Head

Teacher, as she explained:

… we’ve set up this competitive culture just generally, you know, we signed up to that … what –

ever we’ve tried as a school to counter it, you know, we are saying, ‘you need to be competing

with each other, you need to get to this level because if you don’t you will end up in sink groups

in secondary school, and you won’t get decent jobs!’ we hear ourselves saying it. I’m horrified I

hear myself saying that … you know, we’re perpetuating that whole thing …

Sally expressed particular concern about how this culture was ‘forcing failure’ on children

in her school who could not measure up to the academic standards expected by external

bodies like Ofsted. She was very critical of the narrow priorities of the testing culture and the

messages they were sending her students about what counts in terms of education. As her

comments above indicate, nonetheless, she felt compelled to promote the government’s

agenda in terms of encouraging a ‘competitive culture’. Sally’s concerns about these mes-

sages framed my interviews with eight Year 5 and eight Year 6 students who were selected

to participate in the research as they reflected the particular demographics of the school (i.e.

approximately half of the students interviewed were from white middle class backgrounds,

while half were from more diverse backgrounds). The five children whose voices feature in

this paper are all very high achievers. Their stories are presented here because they provide

insight into how neoliberal discourses of performativity have taken hold of students’ ways

of thinking about and valuing themselves and others; how they have come to constitute

what counts as a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life (see davies & Petersen, 2005; O’f lynn & Petersen,

2007). As noted earlier, all young people might now be seen as children of the market (nairn

& Higgins, 2007) and, in this sense, such discourses might seem natural and inevitable to

them. However, it is contended in this paper, consistent with similar research (see walkerdine

et al., 2001), that investment in these discourses varies, and that these children’s status as

high achievers (and generally class-privileged) led to a strong investment in these discourses.

The children

Lucien, Adam and Rebecca are in Year 6 at Saffron while Christopher and Sophia are in Year

5. All of the students have been at the school since ‘nursery’ (age four/five). Lucien, Adam,

Rebecca and Sophia are all from middle-class backgrounds while Christopher is from a low

socio-economic background. Although all of the students were born in the UK, they are

from varying ethno-European heritages; for example, Lucien and Sophia’s parental heritage

is Italian, while Adam, Rebecca and Christopher’s parents are from the UK. The students

articulated high aspirations for their future. Lucien, Adam and Christopher wanted to be pro –

fessional sportsmen (although they expressed awareness that they would need a ‘back-up’

profession, like a doctor), Rebecca wanted to attend Oxford or Cambridge and get a ‘good

degree’ but hadn’t decided on what sort of degree, while Sophia wanted a future in the per –

forming arts because she is passionate about singing, acting and writing. All of the children

seemed to have fairly privileged home lives in terms of economic and social/familial support

apart from Christopher, whose mother became disabled in 2013 through a fall, forcing her 112 A. KEddIE

to leave her paid work, and whose father, in his words, ‘isn’t able to find work at the moment

because he has a criminal record’.

within the context of a two-month period of regular classroom and playground obser –

vations at the school and getting to know these students informally, I interviewed Lucien,

Adam, Rebecca, Christopher and Sophia on one occasion each (as I did with all of the students

who participated in the study). These interviews lasted approximately one hour. I tried to

create an informal and friendly environment that foregrounded what the students wished

to talk about. following questions to elicit background information, I prompted the students

to talk about their aspirations for the future, their thoughts about the importance of educa-

tion, their achievements at school and beyond school, doing well at school, their views on

tests and exams, and their thoughts about the school including teaching and teachers, the

general environment and other students. The data were analysed in light of the literature

reviewed earlier drawing on the conceptual tools of performativity and neoliberal respon-

sibilisation. notions of performativity and neoliberal responsibilisation were particularly

evident in how the five children articulated their views of the significance of education and

their ability and reputation as students. while the voices of the broader cohort of interview –

ees are briefly mentioned in relation to views about the significance of education, the key

emphasis is on the views of Lucien, Adam, Rebecca, Christopher and Sophia.

Significance of education

All of the children expressed a keen awareness of the significance of education to their future

capacity to take up the material benefits of the social world. They were particularly aware of

the relationship between education and employment credentialling (see Keddie, 2012; Mills

& Gale, 2010). while some identified the sort of vocation they would like to take up, such

as teacher, barrister and doctor, most of the children simply associated a good education

with the capacity to get a good job and earn a good income. ‘Akume’ (Year 6), for example,

stated that education will ‘help you get a better future’ and that doing well in college would

help you get a job quicker; ‘Elizabeth’ (Year 5) that it would get her ‘a good job’ and ‘a good

future’; and ‘Christina’ (Year 6) that education and studying hard were necessary ‘if you want a

very good job’ so that you can ‘be independent and get what you want’. Similarly ‘Samantha’

(Year 5) stated that studying hard and getting a good education would ‘get you money and

set you up for life’ and Christopher (Year 5), that a good education would lead to independ-

ence and ‘getting somewhere big in life’ with ‘lots of money’ and a ‘good job’. f or ‘Annie’ (Year

5) working hard at school, at ‘your exams and stuff ’ would also lead to a good job and for

Adam (Year 6) a good education was about being ‘clever academically’, as he bluntly stated

‘… to be honest … [if you’re] not clever academically [you] won’t have a good job when

[you’re] older which means [your] life is over basically’.

This concern that not doing well at school would lead to a degraded future lifestyle was

evident for many of the students. f or ‘danielle’ (Year 5), ‘getting good grades’ meant that she

would not have to be a waitress like her cousins ‘who didn’t do very well at school’. danielle

also worried that if she didn’t do well in education she wouldn’t have enough ‘money from

her job’ to ‘look after’ her children. Similarly, Annie (Year 5) spoke of a good education pro –

tecting her from having to take up menial jobs, as she stated: ‘you wouldn’t want to be a

rubbish man picking up stuff from the streets’. f or ‘Bronte’ (Year 6) a good education was

about affording her more opportunities and a better life than her parents who in her words OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 113

had ‘a rough background growing up’ because they had left school early and for ‘Johnathon’

(Year 5), it was about being able to afford decent housing and avoid ‘liv[ing] on the streets’.

These children’s remarks reflect the social reality that aligns level of educational achieve –

ment with level of capacity to take advantage of the economic and material benefits of the

social world (see Keddie, 2012). The discourses of performative neoliberalism permeate the

children’s talk about education as a vehicle to job success and economic security; indeed a

good education and a good job are imperative, not only in signifying one’s worth and value

as a good citizen, but to ensuring survival (see davies, 2005; Rose, 1999). The overwhelming

priority here is on earning capacity and economic gain as a matter of attaining a level of

social status with individualism and competition necessarily driving this agenda. High social

status along these lines, for these children, is what constitutes the ‘good life’ (see O’f lynn

& Petersen, 2007). Consistent with Rose (1999; see also Apple, 2001), what we see emerg-

ing here (and explored in more depth below) are these children positioning themselves as

strategising entrepreneurs who are calculated and deliberate in their endeavours to ‘better’

themselves (davies & Bansel, 2007; O’f lynn & Petersen, 2007; Shamir, 2008; Youdell, 2004).

Such a positioning was apparent in how the children described their academic ability

and reputation as students. The children spoke about this aspect of their lives in distinctly

calculated ways; measuring, comparing and evaluating their worth within the context of

fields of external judgements such as SATs (Ball, 2003). However, for the high achieving

children, Lucien, Adam, Christopher, Rebecca and Sophia, this sense of performativity was

particularly heightened. It was key to these students marking out and ensuring that they

retain their identities as successful students – the ‘cleverest’ students who are better than

others. drawing on the notions of performativity and neoliberal responsibilisation outlined

earlier, the following provides an account of these high achieving students’ views of their

academic ability and reputation.

Academic ability and reputation

Lucien informed me that he was in the ‘top group’ for most of his subjects. He expressed

pleasure at this positioning, stating it gave him a ‘sense of achievement’. He mentioned

that he did not mind the work involved in maintaining this position, for example, doing the

‘loads of practice tests’ in the ‘run up to the SATs’. Lucien was particularly proud to be doing

Level 6 SATs preparation because he was aware that such preparation was only for ‘excep –

tional’ students. This involved him and other high achieving students being ‘taken out of

playtimes and lunchtimes to do practice tests … [and] stop[ping] normal lessons to go to a

room downstairs’. He spoke of himself and his friends ‘getting really excited’ doing the Level

6 tests because they ‘had achieved so much’. Lucien’s investment in doing well and being on

top was clearly evident in the jealousy he noted towards his friend ‘Sam’ who was selected

to prepare for more of these Level 6 tests than Lucien. Such investment was also apparent

in the way Lucien spoke of his competition with Sam in the Junior Maths Challenge, which

he described as ‘like a kids’ world Cup’, and his strong level of awareness of his ability rank

in relation to other students evident in his ‘Silver’ award:

[Sam] got uh best in the school for the Junior Maths Challenge. He got first in the school but,

they uh, I think 6 people got first, about 10 people got second and 2 people got third so we were

all in the top, probably about 50% of about 240,000 across the country, across the uh, United 114 A. KEddIE

Kingdom … apparently I was one mark away from Gold, so in the top 6%, Silver is in the next

19% and then I think Bronze is in the next 21%.

Christopher was equally aware of, and invested in maintaining, his position and reputation as

a high achieving student. His pleasure was associated with being ‘above the national average’

in all his classes. He proudly noted that he had a ‘reading age of a 22 year old … could do 25

words [at age] 1’ and had ‘read at least 300 big books in [his] lifetime’, including ‘all the Harry

Potter books [twice]’. He was also keen to tell me about his ‘massive’ improvements over his

last few years at the school with ‘really, really good’ school reports and an ‘A+ in 12 subjects’

the previous year. Christopher was concerned to maintain this high level of achievement,

as he said, ‘I don’t want to go down grades because that’s bad. I want to go up as far as I can

until I get to the top grade’. As with Lucien, competition and a strong level of awareness of

his ability positioning in comparison to others was central to such concerns. Also central was

a sense of strategising in terms of what it would take to maintain his position and reputation

as the ‘clever kid’, as he said: ‘I’m one of the cleverest kids in my class [but] there’s a lot of

people who are really, really clever and really, really smart’. Christopher spoke of being in

competition with a ‘few kids in [his] class, the clever ones’. He explained that it was important

that he ‘get proper ground away from them … to be at least a little bit of a gap ahead of a

few of them’ just in case he was tired or having a bad day so that he could be sure that he

could maintain his position ‘above the rest’.

Adam spoke in similarly candid and invested ways about his cleverness, as he stated in

relation to his twin brother (at the same school), ‘my brother is very very clever but not that

sporty whereas I’m very clever, I’m very clever but quite sporty as well’. Adam attributed

much of his academic achievement to his individual desire to be clever and his efforts to

work hard. His high expectations of himself were clear when he stated: ‘If I get a level that

I know I can do better than, I’m like dammit you know, “come on Adam I should have done

better”’. Comparing himself with other children who weren’t as clever, he noted:

… to be honest … the children that aren’t as clever, they don’t really mind because they don’t

really see that it’s, kind of good to be clever … they know that they can, I think [but] they don’t

realise in their mind that um … they need to work harder, they need to be good at sitting tests

and all that, they just aren’t … aware of what life is really … they’ll hopefully realise that in

secondary school, and then they know that they’re a bit behind and they can hopefully work

harder …

f or Adam, these children were not ‘as bothered’ as he was in terms of doing well. Like Adam,

Rebecca was also concerned about doing well and very aware of her superior cleverness in

comparison to other children in her class. She also informed me, like Lucien, that she was in

the ‘top group’ for everything, although she presented this information with a rather cynical

caveat: ‘yeah [well], the teachers don’t tell us but you can kind of tell when different reading

books are 1) A Dictatorship from Einstein and 2) A Dog called Binky’. Evidence of Rebecca’s

cleverness was clear to her because she found the SATs tests easy, as she explained: ‘I find

them easy … on most of the Level 5 tests and on some of the Level 6 tests, I had about 20

minutes at the end where I’d completely done it, checked through and had nothing to do’.

However, like Christopher, she also expressed anxiety about ensuring that she maintain her

reputation as a Level 6 student evident in her knowledge of, and strategising in relation to,

achieving on these tests:

… if I don’t answer a question or I can’t find the answer to a question I do think ‘what if this is

the difference between a Level 5 and a Level 6, what if this is the difference between my levels?’ OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 115

um … like, for the Level 5s you’re allowed to drop like 15 marks … then it goes down to Level

4 … and then, for the Level 6 they’re harder and if you drop 10 marks I think then you’re, then

you don’t get a Level 6.

when expressing these anxieties, as noted in the beginning of this paper, Rebecca described

herself as a ‘really bad perfectionist’—as someone who was never satisfied with her perfor –

mance, no matter how good. Her reference to her performance in the Junior Maths Challenge,

i.e., her dissatisfaction with her Bronze medal was, for her, an illustration of this ‘bad perfec-

tionism’ and her view that, while she appreciated her high performance, she ends up thinking

‘about all the stuff [she] could have done better’.

Like the other children, Sophia was also in the top group for all her subjects and invested

much energy into performing well at school. f or Sophia, being in the top group was impor-

tant because:

… it’s the top who are considered the most intelligent and stuff, it’s the top who get big things

in their life … it’s the top who get chosen for stuff like … team captain, school council [who] …

get lots of opportunities more than the ones who … need more help.

Sophia spoke of ‘quite liking tests’ because they were an opportunity for recognition of her

ability and efforts. They were a mechanism that demonstrated her improvement and gave

her a sense of achievement, as she explained:

I quite like tests … it’s really a time to think ‘okay if I get this right I might be able to move up’ …

if you get one level ahead [it] would be a big success. I quite like also … the idea that people can

see what you can do like it gets passed onto your next teacher … and it gets kept in a record

… you can just look back and say, ‘I did that and that … last year … I got B, now I’ve got B+, oh

look, now I’ve got an A’, it’s quite good.

Like some of the others, Sophia also expressed a sense of anxiety about maintaining her

reputation as a clever student. Her anxiety was associated with the extra tuition she needed

to keep up this reputation and whether or not she was trying hard enough:

I do try hard but I hope it’s hard enough … I still get As but the thing is … I’m still not amazing.

The thing is now I’m having tuitions [for] Maths and Science … sometimes I wonder if, I really

want to be one of the top students … I don’t think … I don’t put enough pressure on myself,

that’s the point. I don’t push myself as I could do.

Performativity and neoliberal responsibilisation

Along the lines of research conducted by McLeod and Yates (2006, p. 52), these children

understand a ‘good’ student as one ‘who is good at doing what examinations require; who

applies him or herself to the necessary study to succeed; and who does in fact succeed’.

Clearly framing this understanding of the ‘good’ student are discourses of neoliberal per –

formativity (see Ball, 2003; Thompson, 2010; wilkins, 2012a, 2012b). These children are

organising themselves in ‘response to targets, indicators and evaluations’; they are living

‘an existence of calculation’ (Ball, 2003, p. 215). The targets that matter in this existence are

externally prescribed in the form of classroom ability setting (streaming) and standard-

ised tests—these are the fields of judgement that for these students seem to encapsulate

and represent their worth and value (Ball, 2003). High achievement within these fields is

clearly important to all of the students, with all of them very invested in their recognition as

‘top’ ability group performers. f or Lucien, high achievement means being ‘exceptional’, for

Christopher and Adam it means being recognised as the cleverest kids in their class and for 116 A. KEddIE

Sophia, it means ‘being considered intelligent’, ‘being chosen for stuff ’ and ‘get[ting] lots of

opportunities’. Performing well in classroom tests, SATs and Maths competitions, for these

children means that they are successful; it marks out their difference to others; their above

average and outstanding status (see Ball, 2003; w ilkins, 2012a).

Maintaining this identity as outstanding, however, requires much effort and calculation

and is oftentimes a fraught process. As the children’s remarks illustrate, it requires intensive

work on the self (d ean, 1995; Rose, 1999), for example, ‘loads of practice tests’ (Lucien), extra

reading (Christopher) and tuition (Sophia), having very high expectations, ‘working harder’

than others and being tough on yourself (Adam). It also requires detailed knowledge of the

‘game’, i.e. what it takes to succeed on the external fields that count (such as SATs). Rebecca,

for instance, is acutely aware of the marks required to achieve at Level 6 as opposed to Level

5 or 4. Adam similarly knows that being ‘good at sitting tests’ is crucial to being seen as a suc –

cessful student. These children actively comply with the demands of performativity through

‘playing the game’ (Ball, 2003; Macf arlane, 2015). we can see here that the efforts involved in

playing this game well reflect what Ball (2003) describes as a spectacle, a ‘fabrication’ in that

these students are deliberately crafting a particular representation or version of themselves

for a specific purpose and circumstance. It is produced to look good on the parameters that

‘count’. However, the active and unquestioning take up of these performative demands also

indicates their taken-for-grantedness. They are, indeed, children of the market; members of a

neoliberal generation crafting their identities within this social order’s seemingly natural and

normal expectations and rationalities (see nairn & Higgins, 2007; Thompson, 2010; wilkins,

2012a). Along similar lines to the middle class young women in walkerdine et al.’s work (2001),

these children appear to have mastered the neoliberal repertoires of the self that construct

high academic achievement and exceptional performance as the ‘norm’.

Central to mastering these repertoires is a strong investment in competition. The chil-

dren seem to revel in this component of their enterprising identities not least because as

‘top group’ performers they receive much positive recognition from their school and peers.

Investment in competition is particularly apparent in the children’s detailed awareness of

their ability ranking in relation to others. f or Christopher, his reading age of 22 sets him well

above his peers, for Rebecca her superior cleverness is clear because she finds the SATs tests

easier than most of her fellow students and for Lucien, evidence that he is better than most

is apparent in his achievement in the Junior Maths Challenge. Lucien’s characterisation of

this challenge as like a ‘kids’ world Cup’ and the detailed knowledge he offers in relation

to the statistics involved in ranking student performance within the categories of Gold,

Silver and Bronze (like Rebecca’s knowledge of the marks required to attain different levels

of achievement in the SATs tests) illustrates a strong investment in competition and, more

specifically, being ‘better’ than others. Indeed, Lucien admits that he is jealous of those who

are recognised as better than him. These children are working as enterprising individuals

within the external parameters of achievement that matter at their school (see O’f lynn &

Peterson, 2007; wilkins, 2012a). This is a highly strategic, active and continuous endeavour

of calculation, measurement and comparison towards building and developing a self that

is productive, ‘successful’ and better than others (see Apple, 2001; O’f lynn & Peterson, 2007;

w ilkins, 2012a; Youdell, 2004).

Given the children’s crafting of themselves along these enterprising and individualistic

lines, it is not surprising that their ways of thinking about their achievement and success

reflect a strong sense of neoliberal responsibilisation (Rose, 1999; Shamir, 2008; w ilkins, OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 117

2012a; Youdell, 2004). As noted earlier, neoliberal responsibilisation is a mechanism of neolib –

eral governmentality (f oucault, 1991) that, within the sphere of education, positions students

as self-determining and self-sustaining subjects whose choices are rational expressions of

free will, the consequences of which they solely bear and are responsible for (see Shamir,


Certainly, it seems that all of the children see themselves as autonomous in the way that

they refer to their academic position as ‘top’ performers and in their descriptions of their

efforts to attain this position. It does appear that the children see their success as a self-de –

termined decision that they are solely responsible for. Lucien, for example, recognises and

welcomes the extra work involved in being ‘exceptional’ and Sophia accepts that she needs

extra tuition to maintain her success. The notion of neoliberal responsibilisation is especially

clear in Adam’s comments. He attributes his success and cleverness to individual desire and

effort in terms of knowing (or being ‘bothered’ to know) what it takes to succeed and push-

ing himself toward that goal. As he states, ‘if I get a level that I know I can do better than, I’m

like dammit you know, “come on Adam I should have done better”’. Conversely, he indicates

that children who ‘aren’t as clever … don’t really see that it’s … good to be clever [and]

don’t realise that they need to work harder’ and be more ‘aware of what life is’ about. In this

respect, he views their underperformance as a matter of them not trying hard enough and

not being bothered enough to do well. Thus, along the lines of neoliberal responsibilisation,

he positions these less clever children’s underperformance as their responsibility and choice,

just as he positions his high performance as his responsibility and choice. Underperformance

and high performance are, in his view, expressions of free will on the basis of self-determined

decisions (see nairn & Higgins, 2007; w ilkins, 2012b; Youdell, 2004).

It is clear that within the ‘labyrinth of performativity’, these children are creating identities

of success; they are crafting ‘triumphant selves’ (Ball, 2003). However, such crafting is clearly

not without anxiety and inner conflict. Pursuing and maintaining academic excellence and

improvement for these children is marred by ontological insecurity: uncertainty, guilt and

dissatisfaction about whether they are doing enough or as well as others (Ball, 2003; O’f lynn

& Peterson, 2007; walkerdine et al., 2001). Christopher’s anxiety about maintaining his status

as the clever kid is reflected in his strategising to be operating at a level enough advanced

from his closest competition that he will outperform them even on his ‘tired’ or bad days. This

is a type of insurance policy that, for Christopher, seems to manage his anxiety or insecurity

about potentially underperforming. Rebecca attempts to manage the anxiety associated with

potentially underperforming by arming herself with detailed knowledge about the marks

associated with each SATs Level and the exact number of marks that will signify a drop in

grading. Her ontological insecurity is particularly pronounced in her bad perfectionism and

never being satisfied with her achievement. f or Rebecca, however triumphant the discourses

of performativity allow her to be, it will never be quite good enough. Indeed, such discourses

can be seen as encouraging the bad perfectionism she describes that will always leave her

dissatisfied and wanting to be more or better (see O’f lynn & Peterson, 2007; walkerdine

et al., 2001). Sophia also expresses self-doubt and anxiety about maintaining her academic

excellence. Even though she receives high grades, she describes herself as ‘not amazing’

because she requires extra tuition. Thus she seems to present her high performance as

somewhat fraudulent. She might ‘look good’ on paper but this is a version of herself that she

does not recognise (Ball, 2003). She is, moreover, uncertain about whether she wants to be a

‘top student’, her self-doubt about this seemingly fraudulent identity is evident in her view 118 A. KEddIE

(perhaps guilt) that she doesn’t put enough pressure on herself to perhaps deserve such

status (see O’f lynn & Petersen, 2007; walkerdine et al., 2001). Consistent with the notion of

neoliberal responsibilisation, these anxieties about performance (about not doing enough,

or measuring up) seem to be internalised; they are seen as matters of personal responsibility.

Concluding discussion

The sense of performativity and responsibilisation in these children’s stories would be far

from unfamiliar to many educators and education researchers. Indeed, the competition

around ability, testing and performance evident in these stories is nothing new to the sphere

of ‘modern’ schooling as key research has illustrated (see Lacey, 1970). w ilkins (2012b, p. 768)

argues, however that the:

… rise of neoliberal concerns and prerogatives in the realm of education has provisionally

secured the predominance and continuation of the sovereign character of competitive behav –

iour in classroom settings.

It is important then to continue to highlight and find new ways of thinking through and

theorising the constitutive effects of these discourses in shaping and governing students’

thoughts about themselves and others. Certainly, there are obvious limitations methodo –

logically in this paper in its featuring of children’s self-reflections drawn from a small corpus

of interviews. nonetheless, the stories presented here are compelling. They illustrate the

ways in which neoliberal discourses continue to be naturalised and taken-for-granted in

what counts as being a good student and a good citizen.

w hile the focus in this paper was on five high achieving students within a broader cohort

of 16, all of the children expressed distinct awareness of the relationship between education

and employment credentialing. Indeed, a discourse of performative neoliberalism where

education is positioned as the vehicle to job success and economic security seemed to

encapsulate the children’s views of the significance of education. Educational achievement

was seen as crucial to future economic and social advantage as was the competition and

individualism driving efforts to attain this high status; as most of the children noted quite sim-

ply, working or studying hard were key to getting a good education, a good job and a good

future, the absence of which would mean a life of menial jobs or even living on the streets.

for the high achieving students, Lucien, Adam, Christopher, Rebecca and Sophia, such

competitive individualism in relation to carving out a sense of self worth and value as stu-

dents was particularly salient. This was clear in how they spoke about their academic ability

and reputation. The children’s ideas about what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ student

reflected the discourses of neoliberal performativity and responsibilisation. They organised

themselves in response to targets, indicators and evaluations within the external measures

of success at school that count, i.e. classroom ability setting/streaming and standardised

academic tests and competitions. The children’s high performance on these indicators led to

their reputation as ‘exceptional’ or the ‘cleverest’—the self-worth and value generated from

this reputation reinforcing their investment in this existence of calculation. Consistent with

the notion of neoliberal responsibilisation, this reputation or status was seen as a self-de –

termined choice. Success, cleverness and the positional advantage these markers lead to,

in this respect, were attributed to individual hard work and effort rather than, for example,

broader structural advantages (be they economic, racial or gendered). OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 119

To be sure, marking out their difference as outstanding was in a sense hard work in terms

of intensive work on the self. Certainly, it must be recognised that the children, as race and

(generally) class privileged who enjoy strong familial support (except for Christopher), are

more able to take up the successful student identities available within neoliberal discourses

of performativity and responsibilisation than their less privileged peers. The background

advantages of these students clearly support them in this respect. f or Christopher, the only

working-class child in this group, there was greater intensity involved in this work on the

self and by others on him to take up this identity. f rankly, it was harder work for him to mark

out his difference as outstanding given the disadvantages of his home life. Such work on

the self and on him by others was evident, for example, in Christopher’s participation in an

anger management programme organised by the school to support him to deal with what

he described as his ‘anger streak’ arising from some of the ‘difficulties in his life’ and the

‘tick chart’ associated with this programme that tracked improvement in his behaviour. In

Christopher’s words, this programme ‘really helped’ him to do better at school. for all of the children then, it can be said that crafting and maintaining their identities as

top performers required significant, although varying, degrees of effort and calculation—

whether in the form of external programmes as with the case of Christopher or in the form

of extra tuition as with some of the other students to ensure sustained high achievement

and personal desire and commitment to succeed. It was also an oftentimes fraught or anx –

ious experience even though the children actively and willingly took up the performative

demands of this identity. The ontological insecurity reflected in Rebecca’s and Sophia’s sto –

ries seemed to capture this anxiety. Rebecca’s bad perfectionism meant that she was never

satisfied with her achievements, however outstanding, while Sophia’s need for extra tuition

to achieve her outstanding grades meant, for her, that she was ‘not amazing’ and led to her

questioning whether she was putting enough pressure on herself. Such heightened and

personalised anxiety, self-doubt, dissatisfaction and guilt associated with academic ability

and performance seem to resonate with the gendered dimensions of the ideal neoliberal

female subject as outlined in other research (see McLeod & Yates, 2006; walkerdine et al.,

2001). while these gendered dimensions were not a strong feature within the broader data

set (potentially because the students in this set were not necessarily high academic achiev –

ers), the stories of Rebecca and Sophia certainly gesture towards the ambivalence and com –

plexity of femininities in this high-achieving space (see Renold & Allen, 2006; Ringrose, 2007).

The stories in this paper do support the notion that today’s students are children of

the market. They are crafting their identities and making sense of their educational and

employment experiences and choices within the context of neoliberal imperatives that seem,

to them, natural or normal (see nairn & Higgins, 2007; O’f lynn & Petersen, 2007; wilkins,

2012a). f or high achieving children like those in this paper, such discourses provide spaces

of advantage, for the crafting of triumphant selves. while such discourses also produce

anxiety, self-doubt and dissatisfaction, these students ‘fit into the coordinates of neoliberal

performativity’ because they ‘militate against complacency, revere competitiveness, toler –

ate precarity and evince flexibility’ ( wilkins, 2012a, p. 207). The broader reality, however, is

that neoliberal discourses of performativity and individualism are creating ever increasing

inequities and injustices (see Apple, 2001; w ilkins, 2012a). f or those students who are not as

privileged as Lucien, Adam, Christopher, Rebecca and Sophia (in terms of background and

ability), these discourses are, as Sally (the Head Teacher of Saffron) indicated earlier, ‘forcing

failure’ on children who do not measure up to their narrow priorities and expectations. They 120 A. KEddIE

are sending students very narrow messages about what counts in terms of being a good

student and a good person (see McLeod & Yates, 2006; Thompson, 2010; Youdell, 2004).

Certainly, as this paper has illustrated, these discourses force students to live an existence

of calculation. They compel students to constantly measure themselves against a narrow

vision of ideal studenthood and citizenship and to engage in competition, individualism,

utility and pragmatism rather than collaboration, social responsibility, creativity and experi –

mentation (see Thompson, 2010; wilkins, 2012a; Youdell 2004). The focus is clearly on targets

(of achievement such as SATs) which, as many have argued (see O’neill, 2013), are highly

ineffective measures of ‘success’ in education, not least because they have become disasso –

ciated from educative goals. while broader structural reform and social policy will be requisite to genuinely desta-

bilising the potency of neoliberal discourses within and beyond education, at the level of

student experience, the poststructural work of scholars like Bronwyn davies (2000, 2005;

davies & Petersen, 2005) remains instructive. As she argues, if new ways of thinking and

being a student in the current climate are to be enabled, then students must be supported

to identify the (restrictive or harmful) discourses through which they are spoken into, or

speak themselves and others into, existence. Armed with knowledge about how they are

constituted within and subjected by the neoliberal discourses of performativity, students

can begin to question and transform them. davies further elaborates (2005, p. 13):

w e must give to our students a doubled gaze, to enable them to become critically literate, to

become citizens at once capable of adapting and becoming appropriate within the contexts

in which they find themselves and as responsible citizens capable of critique; citizens who can

understand the constitutive work that discourse does and who can work creatively, imagina-

tively, politically, and with passion to break open the old where it is faulty and to envisage the

new. Even more urgent is the task of giving them some personal tools for withstanding the worst

effects of neoliberalism, for seeing both the pleasure and the danger of being drawn into it, for

understanding the ways in which they are subjected by it.

The children featured in this paper are clearly capable of adapting and becoming ‘appro –

priate’, indeed highly successful students, within the context of their school. They are also

clearly aware of the constitutive work on the self it takes to attain this reputation. There is,

moreover, a real sense in the children’s talk of the ‘pleasures’ and ‘dangers’ involved in tak –

ing up the identity of ‘top’ student as defined by external measures such as SATs. This is a

strong basis from which to foster students’ critical thinking about the narrow vision of ideal

studenthood and citizenship in which they are compelled to engage if they are to be seen

as ‘successful’. Such critical thinking will be requisite to supporting children of the market

to imagine creatively different ways of being that are less about competition, individualism

and personal gain and more about collaboration, creativity and social responsibility.


The research reported in this paper was funded by the Australian Research Council, f uture fellowship

Scheme (fT100100688).

Notes on contributor

Amanda Keddie is a researcher and teacher in the School of Education at the University of Queensland,

Australia. Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and OxfORd REvIEw Of EdUCATIOn 121

conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities,

teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-po –

litical trends. 


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