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We have been discussing the forthcoming 2024 UK general election and how we might enable debate about public education in England. We have found James O’Brien’s arguments about ‘footballification’ to be a good starting point:

‘… the accelerating “footballification” of public discourse … is where we assess an action not by what has actually been done on the metaphorical pitch but instead by the shirt colour of the person who has done it. If they’re on our “team” we cheer them passionately; if they’re playing for the opposition we furiously boo absolutely identical behaviour.’ (O’Brien, 2021, p. 2).

This characterisation of a ‘shirt-colour’ political culture in England is provocatively stimulating for understanding education policy: recognising the chasm that divides people, fuelled by blind loyalty, visceral hostility (including violence) and myths in spite of the evidence to the contrary. Our research shows that the provision of and access to school places is based on a ‘club brand’. The replacement of education policy with education markets has created an environment where loyalty for a ‘logo-ised’ nursery, school, college and university is what matters (see Gunter 2023), and where players compete to secure and retain a team place (see Innes et al., 2023; Hughes et al., 2020; Rayner et al., 2017; Rayner & Gunter, 2020).

‘The replacement of education policy with education markets has created an environment where loyalty for a “logo-ised” nursery, school, college and university is what matters, and where players compete to secure and retain a team place.’

This football analogy generates concerns. Not all football club supporters are thoughtless. People have values evident in ‘sportsmanship’, and history shows that club owners and managers who deviate from expectations have faced the wrath of their devoted communities. This got us talking about the difference between a football ‘fan’ and ‘supporter’: a supporter supports a football club and team, and a fan is a fan of football. We would like to give credit to Helen Gunter’s husband Barry Gunter who explained how he supports Wolves and is a football fan.

This distinction has enabled our thinking about education policy. Reforms to public service education from the 1980s onwards have invested in school supporters by creating:

  • an identified ‘football-shirt-type’ distinctive brand for the school through name/badge, school uniform, curriculum, student outcomes, behaviour and staffing
  • children, parents, philanthropists and faith organisations as club and team supporters, where the local school (like a football club) can have a new name and building that is disconnected historically and geographically from the community that it was originally established to serve
  • a hierarchy within club supporters because the financialisation of everything means that those with the money control the process and product
  • league tables with team rankings and data to demonstrate superior status through trophy outcomes (such as Ofsted grade) and the financially advantaged may ‘buy’ success
  • a manager as a visionary leader and deliverer of student outcomes and protector of reputation, who will be sacked if games are lost (for instance poor inspection outcome or exam results), and can become a version of a football pundit through a consultancy role that positions them for the next job
  • a competitive culture where teachers as team players can be poached/dismissed/transferred by well-funded schools and multi-academy trusts which have the resources of corporate owners.

Such proactive forms of footballification can be helpful in thinking about a school supporter, where our concern is that parents are only required to focus on their child applying for, entering and graduating from ‘team school’. Their concern is not for education (football) as a whole, but only that their child joins a winning team. This is degrading our public education system, as there is a constant struggle over ‘winning’.

Focusing on the fan is a helpful way forward: a football fan may support a club, but they also like football, and so they watch and enjoy games that other teams play either in national leagues, or international competitions. There is debate about the sport, about players and managers, there are comparisons and contrasts, that may operate at the level of good-humoured banter with both enjoyment of and serious concerns about the sport. An inclusive approach means that we see everyone as a fan of educational services, even if it is a long time ago since each fan went to school, or a fan’s children are grown up, or a fan does not have children. Our view is that education should have a broader fan base, where people care about the education of all children and not only their own, where being a supporter of a particular club does not require other clubs to be disrespected or regarded as irrelevant, and where funding from taxpayers does not favour the strongest/richest clubs in a competition, but is an investment in the public education system as a whole.


Gunter, H. M. (2023). A political sociology of education policy. Policy Press.

Hughes, B. C., Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2020). Researching professional biographies of educational professionals in new dark times. British Journal of Educational Studies, 68(3), 275–293.

Innes, M., Armstrong, P., & Courtney, S. (2023). Centring micro-politics in system leadership in a multi-academy trust. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. Advance online publication.

O’Brien, J. (2021). How not to be wrong. WH Allen.

Rayner, S. M., & Gunter, H. M. (2020). Resistance, professional agency and the reform of education in England. London Review of Education, 18(2).

Rayner, S. M., Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2018). Theorising systemic change: Learning from the academisation project in England. Journal of Education Policy, 33(1), 143–162.

More content by Helen Gunter, Belinda (Bee) Hughes, Mark Innes, Alex McTaggart and Stephen Rayner