Special issue of BERJ on right‐wing populism and education

Dr Saba Hussain, Lecturer in Sociology

Saba is a Lecturer in Sociology and a member of Global Learning Education, and Attainment (GLEA) at Coventry University. She teaches modules around Race, Global Inequalities, and Youth. Her research looks at issues of identity within educational contexts. Most recently she has been looking at challenges to education posed by the rise of far-right populism across the world. This article summarises some of the research that was a part of a special issue on Righ-wing populism she co-edited for the British Educational Research Journal. You can read Saba and Reva’s special issue here: Right‐wing populism and education: Interrogating politics, policy and pedagogic resistance

The term, populism, has meant different things across time and space, and in academic and public discourses. For instance, in the USA, the idea of a genuine egalitarian left-wing politics is seen as populist while in Europe, populism is often used to refer to irresponsible policymaking by left-leaning governments. Undeniably both right- and left-wing ideologies can take on populist shades. Yet the recent years have seen the rise of right-wing populist regimes in many parts of the world like Brazil, Israel, India, and the recently concluded Trump Presidency in USA.  Most of the existing debates around populism have focused on electoral politics and perhaps authoritarian governance styles bought into attention starkly by the pandemic. This special contributes to a systematic dialogue on the way populist politics have interacted with the field of education. Following Apple (1993), this special issue proposes to examine the ways in which the social and cultural terrain of educational discourses has been altered “on the ground” with the rise of populist ideologies. It aims to make closer connections between political discourses, policies and practices in a range of cultural and national contexts. By looking at three historically specific national political contexts namely, England, Brazil and Israel papers in the Special Issue on Right-wing populism and education, in British Education and Research Journalexamine how the grounds of education has been understood and reshaped through populist narratives and programmes.  (Hussain and Yunus 2021).

The first of these sections looks at the ways in which right-wing populism seeks to (re) shape divisions based on race, religion and nationalities, among other things. The succeeding section focuses on the ways in which political and pedagogic practices have been (re)imagined to counter the divisions inhering in populist moves. We end with a discussion of Edda Sant and Anthony Brown’s article in this special section and the stakes of bringing the question of populism into education.

Each of the articles in the special issue discuses a specific aspect of education and populism, weather it is shifts in policy and political discourses or shifts in pedagogic practice and education policies. All the papers unpack the ways in which populist rhetoric has driven, and been driven by these shifts. Authors engage with different aspects of education including texts, practices and policy initiatives, and a range of sites of educational discourse and change. They analyse the meaning and purpose of education, teachers’ social media discourse, pedagogic experiments, politicians’ speech and policy texts, race and ethnicity politics in state policy and educational practice, as well as curricular texts. In doing so the contributions to the special issue offer a range of thematic insights into:

Interrogation of ‘liberal’ education: drawing on the Lacanian concept of ‘fantasy’ Edda Sant and Tony Brown’s article in the Special Issues interrogates how populist and anti-populist narratives not only create fantasies around how the world should be, but also the role and place of education in achieving these respective worlds. They contend that the meaning, role or purpose of education cannot be assumed to be intrinsically emancipatory pointing to the limits of both democracy and education. Whilst recognising the risks in right-wing populism, Sant and Brown (2020) also argue against essentialising supporters of populist politics and leaders as ‘ignorant or uneducated’ and consequently discarding their critique of ‘institutionalised education’ which has its own hierarchy and system of ascribing value. Thus, by critically reflecting on the role of education as imagined in populist and anti-populist fantasies, the authors foreground the crisis of an education as ‘a universalising/socialising machine of liberalist and capitalist princi[ples]’. In other words, the fundamental impossibility of viewing education as inherently emancipatory i.e. the ‘educational cure’ that the anti-populist narrative imagines for the ‘populist disease’.  Claire Blencowe’s article also points to a similar problem within neoliberal Higher Education system in England, where the secular supremacy of the academy combined with Islamophobia has facilitated ‘counter-terror’ and racialised policing on university campuses. An important contribution of this paper is to thinking about the ‘double bind’—between the supposedly irreconcilable demands of secularism associated with western liberal democracies on the one hand, and the religion and spirituality associated with non-western societies on the other hand.

Role of religion:  Roi Silberberg and Ayman Agaberia’s article on Israel, and Mario Alves et al’s article on Brazil focus on the ways in which right-wing populist discourses capture religious discourse in both these country contexts. Both these papers underscore the importance of understanding how religion is mobilised towards populist ends using education or in education. Alves et al. outline how a Conservative tactical alliance built a populist platform to mobilise a broad spectrum of actors against inclusiveness and diversity in education through legislative proposals and new national curricular parameters, in Brazil. For Silberberg and Agbaria (2020) curricular interventions have meant that ‘an important task of Israeli school books is to connect the students to their origin in the Land of Israel through a secularised version of myth’. They relate this to the increasing rationalization of ‘hyper ethno-nationalist ideology’ and ‘racial aggression and hatred towards Palestinians’ using religious logic.

New Modalities of furthering right wing populist discourses: Contributions by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and  Chris Haywood; Jame Craske; Steve Watson; Roi Silberberg and Ayman Agaberia; Mario Alves, et al show how political leaders and policy discourse have sought to further right-wing populist programmes in and through education. In particulat the articles by Craske and Watson respectively show how new forms of engagement and expression are enabled by contemporary social media platforms and other online media, as well as demonstrating how these virtual discourses are implicated in furthering specific often ‘right-wing’ political agendas within education.

Pedagogical challenges to populist discourses. The contribution by Jorge Knijnik and Jen Kitchen offer experiments in resistance to right-wing educational discourses through pedagogic practice. Knijnik’s paper shows that Freire’s dialogical method informs pro-democracy struggles by students, parents and educators in both school and higher education in Brazil today. These struggles challenge the overall rightward shift in education policy as well as ‘witch hunts’ targeting teachers perceived as ‘left wing’. Kitchen’s paper shows how ‘collaborative, egalitarian and performative nature’ of theatre education, can be harnessed in classroom settings more generally to help practice democracy. This paper argues for deploying strategies from theatre education to help teachers and pupils address conflicts and tensions within and between communities, thus leading to ‘democratic social justice outcomes’

In bringing together feminist, critical and anti-race analyses of education in a populist moment, articles in this special section offer important ways to reflect on the way education is imagined in an anti-populist fantasy that, according to Sant and Brown (2020), ‘does not acknowledge its own ideological nature’. At the same time, it is important to recognise that, as scholars, we are also complicit in the hierarchy of educated/uneducated, not only because it continues to (re)produce power relations, but also because, it ‘creates. . . a fantasy of a meritocratic system, in which everyone can succeed and where no one will be left behind’ (Sant and Brown 2020). The authors in the Special Issue thus do the vital job of reminding us that we are deeply implicated in the knowledges we produce about populism and education, and as such must remain relentlessly critical and vigilant of our own biases and investments.

As scholars of populism and education, while we question and critique education, we must also constantly try to grasp the power relations in which our own research/politics/critique is embedded, and through which it is enabled; further, we must constantly scrutinise the extent to which the idea of institutionalised education acts as a precondition to participating meaningfully in contemporary models of consensual, deliberative democracy. Biesta’s (2011, p. 142) critique of citizenship education shows how ‘the task of education can be conceived differently from that of reproducing the existing political order’. He views existing notions of citizenship education—though this is applicable to education more generally as ensuring socialisation and ‘domestication of the citizen’. If we take populist politics to indicate a crisis of ‘representation’ and ‘incorporation’ (Katsambekis, 2017), and one which emerged in the ‘elimination’ of ‘agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other’ (Mouffe, 2018), then it is important that we re-imagine education not as a ‘rational’ project but a deeply ‘political’ one (Biesta, 2011, p. 151). Following Biesta (2011, p. 152) the Special Issue invites readers to re-imagine both education and democracy while also questioning the assumed relationship between the two: it is not education that prepares us for democracy, rather participation in democracy in ‘fundamentally open and undetermined’ ways that educates us in possibilities of democratization.


Alves, M. A., Segatto, C. I., & Pineda, A. M. (2021). Changes in Brazilian education policy and the rise of right‐wing populism. British Educational Research Journal47(2), 332-354.

Apple, M. (1993) Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age (London, Routledge).

Biesta, G. (2011) The ignorant citizen: Mouffe, Ranci ere, and the subject of democratic education, Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(2), 141–153.

Blencowe, C. (2020). Disenchanting secularism (or the cultivation of soul) as pedagogy in resistance to populist racism and colonial structures in the academy. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 398-408

Craske, J. (2020). Logics, rhetoric and ‘the blob’: Populist logic in the Conservative reforms to English schooling. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 279-298.

Hussain, S., & Yunus, R. (2021). Right‐wing populism and education: Introduction to the special section. British Educational Research Journal47(2), 247-263.

Kitchen, J. (2020). Theatre and drama education and populism: The ensemble ‘family’as a space for dialogic empathy and civic care. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 372-388

Knijnik, J. (2020). To Freire or not to Freire: Educational freedom and the populist right‐wing ‘Escola sem Partido’movement in Brazil. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 355-371

Katsambekis, G. (2017) The populist surge in post-democratic times: Theoretical and political challenges, The Political Quarterly, 88(2), 202–210.

Mac an Ghaill, M., & Haywood, C. (2020). The British State’s production of the Muslim School: A simultaneity of categories of difference analysis. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2),264-278

Mouffe, C. (2018) For a left populism (London, Verso).

Sant, E., & Brown, T. (2020). The fantasy of the populist disease and the educational cure. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 409-426

Silberberg, R., & Agbaria, A. (2021). Legitimising populist education in Israel: The role of religion. British Educational Research Journal47(2), 316-331.

Watson, S. (2021). New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England. British Educational Research Journal47(2), 299-315.