Book Review: Democratic Socialism and Education

Book Review: Democratic Socialism and Education: New Perspectives on Policy and Practice, by Neil Hopkins

Switzerland: Springer Briefs in Education, 2019. pp. 66. Pb. £44.99; e-book (Kindle) £42.74

Reviewed by Oliver Belas

In his second book, which draws on and extends his earlier work on citizenship education, Neil Hopkins advances twinned theses. First, twenty-first-century democratic socialism must respond to the challenges of liberalism. Indeed, it must reckon with and assimilate certain aspects of philosophical liberalism, chiefly its concerns with individual and collective identities, and the articulation of individual and community concerns. Second, democratic socialism offers an alternative theoretical framework and timely corrective to current neoliberalist state education. These twinned theses are clearly and succinctly worked through in relation to pressing educational matters: curriculum design and structure; pedagogies; and school governance.

Elsewhere, Hopkins (2014; 2018) has engaged at length with Deweyan and post-Deweyan issues of democracy and education. In Democratic Socialism, Dewey has a significant recurring cameo, but the main philosophical protagonists are Axel Honneth, Chantal Mouffe, and Norberto Bobbio, through whom Hopkins limns a general framework of democratic socialism (ch.2), which he offers as a (possible) antidote to the neoliberalist thinking upon which current state-educational policy in England is based (ch.1). Readers expecting an easy, anti-neoliberal broadside may be surprised by Hopkins’s measured, perspicuous critique. He recognizes, for example, that “[t]here is nothing inherently wrong with” a conception of education as partially transactional (in principle: teachers, as agents of educational institutions, impart knowledge that facilitates the development of new skills, which in turn prepare students for gainful employment) (p. 6); but he is concerned that current policy frames education solely in such terms, and, in effect, forces educational practitioners (working in a system of devolved responsibility (of schools for student outcomes) and centralized governmental control (over the scope and aims of education)) to do likewise.[i]*

Hopkins’s key players recognize that forms and structures of identity and identification have altered radically since the end of World War II. Identity has become more fragmented or, perhaps, partial (in the dual sense Haraway (1991) proposed some time ago – that is, identities are multiple and thickly value-laden); pluralism is not the direction of travel, but a basic state of affairs. Traditionally, moreover, liberal-democratic thinking has better understood – or could at least, in principle, better accommodate – individuality and pluralism than socialist philosophy (which is not to say that liberalism is without its tensions – those, for example, between its universalist and individualistic leanings; or between its insistence on the sovereignty of the individual and its white-supremacist phallogocentrism (e.g. Mills 2014; 2015)). This being so, classic socialism’s once monocular focus on class identity (as a function of modes of economic production, distribution of wealth, and differential power relations) is no longer adequate. Democratic socialism must have something to say about small-p cultural politics – what Mouffe calls the “multipolar world” (Mouffe 2013; Hopkins 2019, p. 12) – as well as big-P governmental Politics if it is to “remain a relevant ideology in the twenty-first century […]. It is also critical to acknowledge and reflect upon the increasing diversity of modern societies” (p. 16).

For Hopkins, then, democratic socialism, pace Mouffe, Bobbio, and Honneth, has the potential to keep a modified socialism relevant and realizable, while pushing back against neoliberalism’s extreme instrumentalism. What this points to is a cultural and governmental politics of localism and participation.

In chapters 3, 4, and 5, Hopkins addresses, respectively, issues of curriculum design, pedagogy, and school governance; and to the general theoretical framework derived from Bobbio, Honneth, and Mouffe he adds ideas drawn from the likes of R.S. Peters, Paul Hirst, John White, Robin Alexander, Georg Kerchensteiner (and Dewey, of course). Hopkins aims to show how each of these aspects of education can both be modelled upon and enact democratic socialist principles. The common thread running through these chapters (and indeed the book), and which sutures together the participatory and the local, is the importance of stakeholder voice (as an alternative to consumer choice, the favourite child of neoliberal educational policy and rhetoric) (p. 4, passim).

In chapter 3, Hopkins advocates a partially devolved curriculum, one that might strike a balance between a (more or less) standard, centralized curriculum (which is not necessarily at odds with equalities of access and treatment), and a curriculum designed by (local) stakeholders for those self-same stakeholders. (Hopkins notes that the report which became known as the Cambridge Review (Alexander 2010) made a similar recommendation (p. 24).) Because the development of such a curriculum involves truly hearing and responding to multiple stakeholder voices, citizenship becomes, almost “naturally,” central to the democratic-socialist curriculum, the participatory structure of which makes it an authentic induction into (rather than mere simulation of or abstract preparation for) democratic life.

Stakeholder voice and dialogue are at the forefront of chapter 4, which deals with pedagogy. Hopkins finds parallels between his conception of democratic socialism, Freire’s reframing of teacher and student relations (from asymmetrical (teacher/student) to symmetrical (teacher-student and student-teacher) power dynamics), and Alexander’s principles of dialogic learning and teaching. In Alexander’s dialogic principles, Hopkins finds a framework that hopes to articulate both collective concerns and individual agency (Alexander 2008; Hopkins 2019, p. 35); and in Alexander’s pedagogical values of individualism, community, and collectivism, Hopkins  finds parallels to the liberal challenges democratic socialism must face: “a democratic socialist pedagogy would need to probably incorporate all three elements in some shape or form. I would, however, expect an emphasis on [individualism and community],” he writes (37), as it’s the articulation of these with which schools are most directly concerned. Rather than dissolve all interpersonal conflicts, or those between the desires of individuals and the demands of the school community, democratic-socialist pedagogy, says Hopkins, would seek to recognize and legitimate such conflict, because, pace Mouffe, liberal democracy per se is predicated upon difference (Mouffe 2013, p. 7, cited in Hopkins 2019, p. 37).

The short final chapter on governance is consistent with the previous chapters: localized, stakeholder-led governance is advocated, so that schools might be run on bases that better serve the communities in which they’re embedded; indeed, so that they might truly be community centres. Once again, the pluralist presuppositions of Hopkins’s democratic socialism are made plain, and participatory democratic mechanisms and localism are foregrounded.

I first attended the PESGB’s annual conference in 2015, when I was still a secondary English teacher. During the AGM, we were told that although philosophy of education was in rude health academically (according to the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework), the discipline was not having any notable (perhaps noticeable) impact on policy. Hopkins’s book (characteristically) is philosophy of education firmly rooted in history, policy, and case study (his is close in many respects to Michael Fielding’s work (e.g. Fielding 2005, 2014)): here, then, is a short book that aims not only at critique, but also at outlining a political-philosophical alternative to the current state of educational affairs, the product of recent reforms which have – I agree with Hopkins on this – been largely (though not wholly) deleterious (pp. 2-3) (To give just one indicative example, consider the decline in uptake of English A Level and degree places since the reforms of 2015 (Bleiman 2018; Busby 2018; Darics 2018; EMC 2017; Ofqual 2018)).

I can imagine some readers dismissing Hopkins’s views on the curriculum especially as antithetical to knowledge, as a reversion to the bad old days of “empty skills” being taught over and above knowledge (e.g. Gibb 2016, but also Yandell 2014). Let’s be clear: this is not what Hopkins is advocating. His curriculum plan (ch.3) does not repudiate disciplinarity and subject expertise, but nor does it prize a narrow range of “core” subjects over and above all others (as is the case currently with the so-called EBacc subjects and Attainment8/Progress 8 measures)** (pp. 19-23).[ii] But given the currency that “knowledge-rich education” (so-called) appears to be enjoying, and in the name of which the reforms of 2012-2015 were presented, I wonder if Hopkins might consider further work on the curricular aspects of his democratic-socialist project. Perhaps there will be scope for this – and further expansion of the ideas adumbrated in Democratic Socialism and Education – in what he hopes will be his next project, a study of Henry Morris and the Cambridgeshire Village College movement.

Hopkins’s Democratic Socialism and Education manages to be that rare thing: a book that is both lucid introduction and original contribution. It will surely appeal equally to teachers, philosophers of education, and those engaged in educational action research.


Alexander, Robin (2008). Essays on Pedagogy. Abingdon: Routledge.

— (ed.) (2010). Children, Their World, Their Education: Final Report and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bleiman, Barbara (2018). “Why Study English? 18 Good Reasons for Doing an English Degree.” Available online at: (accessed 02 July 2019).

Busby, Eleanor (2018). “Fewer Students Take English and Humanities Subjects at A-Level, Figures Reveal.” Independent. 24 May. Available online at: (accessed 02 July 2019).

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— (2014). “Radical Democratic Education as Response to Two World Wars and a Contribution to World Peace: The Inspirational Work of Alex Bloom.” Forum 56(3). 513-527.

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Haraway, Donna (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.

Hopkins, Neil (2014). “The Democratic Curriculum: Concept and Practice.” Journal of Philosophy of Education. 48(3). 416-427.

— (2018). “Dewey, Democracy and Education, and the School Curriculum.” Education 3-13. 46(4). 433-440.

Mills, Charles W. (2014). The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

— (2015). Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mouffe, Chantal (2013). Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso.

Ofqual (2018). “Entries for GCSE, AS and A Level: Summer 2018 Exam Series.” Available online at: (accessed 02 July 2019).

Yandell, John (2014). “Classrooms as sites of curriculum delivery or meaning-making: Whose knowledge counts?” Forum. 56(1). 147–155.

[i] Not to mention the fact that the New Labour promise that “better” education (whatever that might mean) would lead to “better” employment (whatever that might mean) appears not to have come about (see Yandell 2014).

[ii] Attainment 8 and Progress 8 are the metrics currently used by central government to assess schools’ efficacy (see DfE 2017).