Disrupting Education Policy

How New Philanthropy Works to Change Education

by Marina Avelar (Author)
©2021 Monographs XXII, 222 Pages


Philanthropy is on the rise around the world, working in the fields of health, development and, most often, education. Different from charity, now donations are used as "social investment" with specific goals. In education, big corporations and wealthy businessmen strive to reform education through their philanthropic "giving", and have managed to assemble considerable influence in policymaking processes in many countries. But how do new philanthropy organisations promote education reform? And how does their policy work look like in practice? In this book, the author analyses the efforts of large foundations in Brazilian education governance to address these questions. Though having the main empirical setting of Brazilian institutions, this book analyses networks, policies and discourses that surpass national borders and also addresses how new philanthropists are connected to global networks. With support of network ethnography and concepts from Political Science and Human Geography, the author invites the readers to challenge preconceived ideas of how governments and new philanthropy operate, and observe the behind-the-scenes work of new philanthropy to reform education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Foreword by Stephen J. Ball
  • Preface – A critique of false and destructive altruism in the educational and political spheres
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 New philanthropy and the global education reform
  • Chapter 2 From government to governance: Changing relations in society and how to study them
  • Chapter 3 Working to shape narratives and frame education policy ideas
  • Chapter 4 Working to collaborate in and through networks
  • Chapter 5 Working to change structures and institutionalise a reform agenda
  • Chapter 6 New philanthropy, education policy networks and issues for a democratic education
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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Foreword by Stephen J. Ball

When we think of government and policymaking we tend to conjure up images of elected politicians and career civil servants sitting around tables in a ministry buildings working on rational agendas of policy delivery and reform – driven either by principles, manifesto commitments or ideology. But policy work is not like that anymore. The policy process is distributed across loosely connected arrangements in diverse locations that include agencies, foundations, think tanks and businesses of various kinds, working as contractors, consultants or “interested” parties with their own funding. These arrangements and the many different ties that link them extend across national boundaries in convoluted asymmetrical networks of policy – policymaking has never been particularly transparent, it is now decidedly opaque. This book is about these new modalities of policy and some of the actors local and international who are involved in the contemporary education policy process in Brazil.

Over the last ten years, the methods of network analysis and network ethnography have begun to be used by education policy researchers to trace and make sense of the new convolutions of policy. This deployment of the network as a device for both researching and representing policy has enabled policy researchers to model their methods and analytic practices in direct relation to the global shift from government to governance, what is sometimes called network governance. This shift involves a move away from administrative, bureaucratic and hierarchical forms of state organisation to the emergence of new reflexive, self-regulatory and horizontal spaces of governance – heterarchies. The heterogeneous array of organisations and practices that make up these heterarchies contributes to, reflects, enables, and necessitates the semiotic and technical rearticulation of education and educational governance. The effect is a significant shift in the centre of gravity around which policy cycles move (Jessop, 1998, p. 32). New relations and spaces of governance are under construction that exist and operate above, beyond and between national state systems. Concomitantly, ←xi | xii→the frame of policy analysis is of necessity also changing: The nation state is no longer a sensible or viable limit to the analysis of policy and governance.

This book addresses exactly this shift in the forms and modalities of the state, in the case of Brazilian and in the example of education policy. It uses network ethnography to identify, map and examine aspects of this shift in relation to specific the international flow of educational forms and normativities.

Network ethnography as a practice is made up of methods, concepts and new research sensibilities to better understand the new actors, organisations, forms of participation and relationships engaging in education policy and, more generally, driving and facilitating the global expansion of neoliberal policy ideas. Network analysis is appropriate here both as a means for the analysis of educational reform and governance, and as a representation of actual social relations and sites of activity within which the work of governing is done. The task/aim of network methodology “must be to identify the actors in these networks, their power and capacities, and the ways through which they exercise their power through association within networks of relationships” (Dicken, Kelly, & Yeung, 2001, p. 93). However, in some respects the work of education policy network analysis has become stuck – many sorts of policy networks are now being researched and mapped in different locations (and between locations) but in many instances the result is no more than a description of network membership and adumbration of network relations. There are relatively few examples of direct research on the effort and labour of networking, or of attempts to “follow” policy through networks, or to address the roles and relationships of key actors or to attend to network evolution. Marina Avelar’s book does all of those things. It moves beyond the simple mapping of network relations to analyse network dynamics – how they work, how they change over time, what effects they have on and in the policy process. The book explores a set of inter-locking education policy networks, which are actively engaged with the reform of the Brazilian school system, its educational methods, and forms of educational governance and specifically the construction of a new policy ecosystem – consisting of practices, organisations, infrastructure and incentives imported from elsewhere. This importation is made possible by a mutating infrastructure that supports the movement or ←xii | xiii→mobilisation of policy models, the self-styled “experts” whose involvement in policy model mobility reinforces its embodied nature. The movements outlined in the book involve “experts” from Australia, the UK and USA, hailed and encouraged and funded by Brazilian philanthropic foundations, bringing with them reform ideas, models and forms, to “reform” Brazilian schools. This is surprising and not. The research highlights the existence of an active global market of education policy “solutions” and individuals, organisations and states eager to sell “their” solutions to willing recipients.

As Larner and Laurie (2010) demonstrate in their work on engineers and privatisation, this account indicates the “centrality of multiple and shifting forms of expertise in the reconfiguring of political-economic institutions, ideas and techniques” (p. 224). “Transfer agents” (Stone, 2004), like those described here, are policy experts and consultants whose travels spread “best practice” models, they are members of a growing “consultocracy” who act as mediators of policy knowledge. These are “sociologically complex actors…whose identities and professional trajectories are often bound up with the policy positions and fixes they espouse” (Peck & Theodore, 2010, p. 170). They labour in the interstices of sprawling and expanding international networks to “assemble” political rationalities, spatial imaginaries, calculative practices and subjectivities.

What is evident in this account is local policies made up of “embodied geographies” and their analysis addresses the ways in which ideas travel and orthodoxies become consolidated. At the same time, new kinds of careers, identities and human mobilities are forged within these processes of education policy and education reform. As policies move, and as new sites, new possibilities and sensibilities are established, policy is “talked” and thought and enacted differently, and within new limits. Here the space of policy analysis is not defined by geographical entities, but by the space configured through the labour of policy actors at the intersection of global and local events and relations. Global, regional, national, state and city, local and institutional levels of policy interact, intertwine and diverge. The flows and spaces and recontextualisations that link the local with global give substance to what Appadurai (1996) through his concept of “scapes” describes as “a new global cultural economy … a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order” (p. 32) which involves “interactions of a new order and ←xiii | xiv→intensity” (p. 27) or what Lingard and Sellar (2014) call new topologies of policy, within which policy “space is configured through the intersection of global and situated elements” (Ong, 2007, p. 5).

This is not to suggest that networks can explain all aspects of the policy process; network relations do not entirely displace other forms of policy formation and policy action.

Network ethnography has a dual interest, both in the “structure” of social relations and the interactional “processes” which generate these structures. This necessitates the exploration of the “content” and perception of the network – the “insider” view of the network, and of the construction, reproduction, variability and dynamics of complex and intricate social ties that make it up. Marina Avelar became such an “insider” – attending events, talking with participants, reading and analysing texts, social media, etc. The book draws on her research which uses network ethnography as “an analytic technique for looking at the structure of policy communities and their social relationships”; and as a “conceptual device … used to represent a set of ‘real changes’ in the forms of governance of education, both nationally and globally” (Ball, 2012, p. 6). The research is made up of a set of techniques that directly engage with the new policy topography. These involved mapping, visiting and questioning, and as Marcus (1995) argues – following policy. That is, following people, “things”, stories, lives and conflicts, and “money” (Ball, Junemann, & Santori, 2017). Avelar gives close attention to organisations and actors, and their relations, activities and histories, within the global education policy field, to the paths and connections that join up these actors, and to “situations” and events in which policy knowledge is mobilised and assembled. That is, the “whos” and “whats” but also the “wheres” and “hows” of policy – the places and events in which the “past, present and potential futures of education co-exist” (McCann & Ward, 2012, p. 48). This is ethnography of “awkward scale” (Roy, 2012). It asks: What spaces do policies travel through on the way from place to another? Who is it that is active in those spaces and who moves between them? How is space/are spaces reconfigured as policies move through it/them and how are policies changed as they move? As McCann and Ward (2012, p. 42) explain this means; “staying close to practice” (p. 45).

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What is also captured in Marina Avelar’s research is one part of a more general re-working of the boundaries of state, economy and civil society in Brazil, and particularly the role of philanthropic foundations in this process. What and who is the state is no longer clear. Where and who makes policy is increasingly opaque. What interests are at stake in the policy process is changing. In all of this education itself becomes subject to the sensibilities and values of the market.

Stephen J Ball

UCL Institute of Education


Appadurai, A. (1996). Global ethnoscapes: Notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In R. G. Fox (Ed.), Interventions: Anthropologies of the present. Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.


XXII, 222
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XXII, 222 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 8 tables.

Biographical notes

Marina Avelar (Author)

Marina Avelar, PhD, has completed her doctoral studies at University College London - Institute of Education, UK, and her thesis was the winner of the 2016 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Education Studies. Her research is focused on the engagement of private actors, especially new philanthropy, in education policymaking, governance and global policy networks. Prior to the PhD, she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, with visiting periods at Lund University, Sweden; UCL Institute of Education, UK; and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain.


Title: Disrupting Education Policy